Fort Pierce, Florida Utility Aims To Deliver Affordable Fiber To All

Since 1972, the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority (FPUA) has provided gas, electric, water, and natural gas services to Fort Pierce, Florida and surrounding areas. Now, inspired by efforts in cities like Chattanooga, the utility hopes to leverage that expertise to deliver affordable fiber Internet access to the city’s 45,000 residents as part of a significant expansion of its internal fiber network. 

Building on Its I-Net

Since the early 2000s, FPUA has deployed 110 miles of optical fiber via its FPUAnet Communications division. Initially, the project focused on bringing ultra-fast fiber broadband to large businesses, schools, hospitals, and other community anchor institutions. 

In 2018, the city decided to expand its footprint to boost the local economy and cement Fort Pierce’s future reputation as a smart city of the future. First by upgrading the company’s existing utility systems (connected to 30,000 existing customer energy meters), then by utilizing that access to drive expanded fiber connectivity to smaller business and residential customers alike. 

“We wanted to look at what we can do, and what are the needs in the community,” Jason Mittler, FPUAnet manager told me. “We have other local competition…Comcast, AT&T are competitors in the area. But in the realm of symmetrical speeds, no one really offers it.”

Fort Pierce certainly isn’t alone in that regard. Even the notoriously inflated FCC data indicates that most U.S. communities rarely have access to symmetrical speeds of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and faster, and competition at those speeds is largely nonexistent. Addressing this market failure created an obvious business expansion opportunity for FPUANet that would not only bring additional value to its existing utility customers in the form of improved reliability and cost savings, but improve regional connectivity while keeping those dollars local

“Upload speeds here in Fort Pierce are not good,” Mittler noted, pointing to the top-heavy speed tiers of both cable broadband and DSL offerings. In contrast, FPUAnet will utilize GPON fiber technology capable of 2.5 Gigabits per second (Gbps) downstream and 1.25 Gbps upstream. In some areas it will deploy XGS-PON-based fiber capable of symmetrical 10 Gbps speeds.

Local Service, Local Value

While still being finalized, the utility plans to offer residential users symmetrical 100 Mbps for $49 a month; symmetrical 200 Mbps for $69 a month; symmetrical 500 Mbps for $79 per month; and symmetrical gigabit for $99 a month. The full project should take around 5 to 10 years, and will be funded by bonds held by FPUAnet.

Mittler said FPUAnet was inspired in part by the success of Chattanooga’s EPB, whose popular fiber optic broadband network has both won awards for customer satisfaction, and driven $2.7 billion in ROI back into the local community over a period of ten years. 

As a registered CLEC since 2005, FUPAnet had a leg up over many utilities hoping to expand into broadband access for the first time. Mittler said the utility hopes to expand service to local businesses in the first quarter of next year, with residential customers coming online at symmetrical gigabit speeds in late 2022 or early 2023.

Before that, Mittler said FPUAnet hopes to leverage the expansion to help bridge the digital divide in historic, lower-income neighborhoods like Lincoln Park. The utility has partnered with Allegheny Francis Ministries, the city of Fort Pierce, and St. Lucie County to provide affordable fiber Internet access to many users for the very first time—as well as gigabit fiber to a new incubation hub and free Wi-Fi in neighborhood parks and transit hubs.

Mittler said the Lincoln Park expansion will cost roughly $2.7 million, and will be funded by community partners City of Fort Pierce, Saint Lucie County, Allegany Franciscan Ministries and FPUA. 

“We've got our design pretty much done, and we're just kind of working through some agreements with our partners to ensure that everybody is on board with it,” Mittler said.

He added that the utility hopes to offer Lincoln Park residents symmetrical 100 Mbps speeds for somewhere around $50. Given that many of these locals may qualify for the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit—which provides monthly discounts of $50 (soon to be $30)—the cost for quality fiber Internet access could prove reachable for many struggling households.

“One of the major issues with bridging the digital divide is not that Internet access is not available, it’s that it’s just not affordable,” Mittler said. 

“Lincoln Park would probably be the last community to be connected” under normal circumstances, he added, nodding to the fact that dominant regional monopolies often simply refuse to upgrade many lower income and minority communities to fiber. 

“In our smart city initiative, they're going to be the first,” Mittler said. “That's the story.”