Nichols, New York Pushes Forward On Open Access Fiber Network

Nichols, New York (pop. 2,300) is the latest U.S. community to embrace open access, community-run fiber as an alternative to monopoly power. The upstate New York town, saddled among rolling green hills close to the Pennsylvania border, hopes the new initiative will boost broadband availability and lower costs. 

A nonprofit by the name of the Southern Tier Network (STN) has been tasked with building the Nichols fiber network. In a September status update, STN officials stated that five miles of fiber had already been deployed, and they’re waiting for New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG) and Verizon to approve requests to use local utility poles to string more. 

In-home installations began on September 12th. So far the open access network only serves as home to one ISP: Ithaca, New York based Fiberspark, which currently offers locals broadband tiers ranging from 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) down and 20 Mbps up for $40/month to a symmetrical gigabit per second (Gbps) tier for $80 per month.

The project was made possible by New York State’s ConnectALL initiative, a $1 billion broadband expansion effort recently heralded as one of the biggest investments in broadband infrastructure in state history. The program was financed through existing state funds and a significant infusion courtesy of federal funds.

The program created a Broadband Assessment Program and Interactive Map administered by the state’s Public Service Commission. It also created three new state grant programs to shore up lagging broadband access, and created a new affordable housing connectivity program to drive affordable connectivity options to marginalized and underserved New York communities. 

Unlike many state and federal initiatives, the program specifically heralds the productively disruptive role municipal broadband efforts will play in expanding access and opportunity to neighborhoods long left behind due to unchecked regional telecom monopolization. 

Nichols residents historically have only had one choice if they want modern-generation broadband access: their local cable company. That’s changing courtesy of STN, which had previously been exclusively deploying “middle mile” fiber networks across the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions of New York State.

“We can do what we’re doing in Nichols, pretty much anywhere on our existing footprint,” STN CEO Jeff Gasper recently told a local PBS affiliate. “We’ve got a model now that we can cut and paste and do somewhere else.”

The Southern Tier Network (STN) is one of four open access model projects created courtesy of $10 million in ConnectALL initiative funding. Sherburne in Chenango County, Diana in Lewis County and Pitcairn in St. Lawrence County will also simultaneously be demonstrating the competitive potential of embracing the open access fiber model. 

A 2009 study by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) concluded that open access fiber networks have consistently resulted in lower broadband prices and better service across countless communities worldwide. But numerous federal broadband proposals, including the agency’s 2010 Broadband Plan, failed to incorporate the agency's own findings. 

Meanwhile, the popularity of open access deployments are now surging thanks to a collision of factors: immense frustration at substandard broadband during Covid lockdowns, annoyance at substandard monopoly service, and a massive, historic infusion of Covid relief and infrastructure funds specifically designated for broadband deployment. 

Inline fiber map of Nichols courtesy of Southern Tier Network