The Future Looks Bright for Access-Anacortes Fiber

Less than seven months has passed since the city of Anacortes, Washington (pop. 17,000) connected the very first subscriber in a pilot project for its municipal network. In the interim, thousands of households have signed up, construction continues at full-steam, and local officials are looking forward to years of providing fast, affordable, reliable service to those living on Fidalgo Island.  

Five Years in the Making

We’ve been following Anacortes since 2015, when the city first began discussing the issue, watching as as local leaders and stakeholders assessed community needs, the state of broadband in the area, and options available to them, and much has changed. Read through our previous coverage if you’re interested in how things unfolded, but by the early part of 2019 the city had decided to pass on the other options and build, maintain, and operate the network themselves

Access-Anacortes, the municipal network borne out of that decision, is approaching the end of a two-year pilot project which by all metrics has been successful. In an interview, Emily Schuh (Administrative Services Director) and Jim Lemberg (Municipal Broadband Business Manager) shared what they’ve learned and how things are going. Throughout 2019 and 2020, construction has passed just over 1,000 premises and achieved a 39.6% take rate, surpassing the 35% bar they set early on, in three pilot areas which sit on the north side and down the middle of town. The city owns, maintains, and operates the network, with the library serving as the center of operations. Access-Anacortes consists almost entirely of new construction, though it does use some of the city’s internal backbone fiber — which itself is only a handful of years old — as well.

The green, yellow, and orange areas in the map below show where the network is currently lit using mostly aerial fiber, with the blue areas representing new construction zones slated to be complete by the end of the year. Those in other parts of town pictures will be a part of future deployment via underground construction, with utility poles used when the underlying geography calls for it. The network has about 20 miles of backbone fiber and about another 20 miles invested in customer drops ranging from 200 to 600 feet in length.

Today, the network has 341 paying customers, though it expects to have around 500 by the end of the year. It also has hundreds more signed up from households around the city that have expressed interest when the network reaches their neighborhood (see the red dots on the map). 

The city anticipates the entire project to cost between $15-18 million. The city council originally committed $3.1 million for the two-year pilot which is ending this year, drawing from general fund reserves. The network just this week is submitting an application for an additional $3 million in funding for construction scheduled to take place 2021. From there, costs will be funded via commercial loans, with network representatives talking with one local bank already.

To ensure success, the city has done targeted mailings in the areas where deployment is active, printed advertisements on utility customer billing envelopes, put placards on the city’s solid waste trucks, and utilized some Facebook advertising as well. Schuh shared that 20% of all households in the city have pre-ordered service, even though the network might not reach them for a few years.

Savings, Community Development, and Lessons Learned 

Back-of-the-napkin math suggests that households will save big by switching to the municipal network, especially those that go with the 100 Mbps tier and replace their TV service with some sort of streaming (Lemberg estimated his own savings at around $60/month doing so, as compared to staying with Comcast in particular). Though no concrete evidence has come in showing a competitive response, anecdotally Schuh and Lemberg shared that Comcast business line customers and Frontier voice customers seem to have seen more aggressive pricing being offered since the network went online. Ziply Fiber is also moving into the area over the next few years.

Access-Anacortes currently offers residential and commercial plans for Internet access only — at the moment, there are no plans to expand into VoIP or bundled TV service. 

Households can chose from two tiers: 100 Mbps and gigabit for $40/month and $60/month, respectively. The network also offers managed Wi-Fi for $10/month (about half its residential and business customers take up this offer) and an installation fee of $100. Business connections are $90 and $150 at the same speed tiers, with the same installation fees and options for manager Wi-Fi.

Schuh and Lemberg emphasized the lessons learned for other communities thinking of going down this path, including navigating the municipal regulatory landscape, establishing consistent contract and procurement processes, and setting policies that are forward-looking. They stressed that difficulties are unavoidable, and without the political will to keep the project going the tendency to stall is high. Schuh highlighted that consistency and community-responsive pricing are among the benefits subscribers to the network will enjoy, since any increases have to go through the city council approval before landing on monthly bills.

Half the City by 2022

The network has plans well in place for 2021 and beyond. It currently has two boring crews and two aerial crews on the ground expanding the network, and make-ready work for its upcoming expansion areas is already done, with plans to pass another 1300 locations (the blue areas in the map above) by the end of this year. In those areas the network has already received 234 additional service orders, and they expect more to come. Customers there will see installs happening starting in the first week in November.

At the end of the summer Access-Anacortes linked up with the city of Mount Vernon’s municipally owned fiber infrastructure, strengthening the resilience and redundancy of the networks backhaul while further knitting together the region. Skagit County has indicated that, as its current contracts with various Internet Service Providers (ISPs) expire over the next several years, it will transition over to using Access-Anacortes as its service provider. Additional plans are also in the works.

In 2021, construction will take place in seven additional areas mostly surrounding existing builds, passing an additional 1815 premises and bringing the grand total by the end of next year to just over 4,000 out of the city’s 7,600 households.

We want to be the Internet service provider of choice through our faster speeds, lower prices, and reliable network that is based in town.  When people call with a question, they are talking to someone at City Hall. - Emily Schuh, Administrative Services Director, City of Anacortes