Ponca City, Oklahoma, is a small community of about 24,000 just 30 miles off of I-35. Although known for its history museums, Ponca City also has a rich history in its publicly owned network. The city was one of the pioneers of citywide Wi-Fi in the 2000s, and now they are embarking on a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project. Construction on the first phase of the network will be complete with customers online by mid-July. We spoke with David Williams, the Director of Technology Services, to learn more about Ponca City’s project.
The First Phase
The first phase of the new FTTH network is a small section of the city, a 1 mile by 1.5 mile rectangle bounded by Bradley Avenue, Highland Avenue, 14th Street, and Union Street where the city is primarily deploying aerially on poles. The entire city is only about 20 square miles and the entire network for the city will eventually be a mix of underground and overhead deployment, matching the municipal electric network infrastructure.
The engineering estimate for the first phase puts the cost at approximately $3.5 million. The city estimated how many people will sign up for service (the take rate) very conservatively and is on track to meet its target number.
Williams said they chose to focus exclusively on Internet service and will have no data caps or subscriber contracts. There will be an activation fee with two payment options: a one-time payment of $200 or $10 per month for 24 months.
Residents can choose from three speed tiers — all are symmetrical:
- 50 Mbps for $60 per month
- 100 Mbps for $100 per month
- 1 Gbps for $250 per month
Service for businesses will also be available; rates are available on a case-by-case basis.
There were about 395 pre-sign ups for the city’s fiber Internet access service according to Williams. Pre-sign ups are non-binding expressions of interest in the project. When the city’s contractor began connecting people’s homes to the network, the city saw a surge in pre-sign ups even before the network was lit. The form to pre-sign up for the first phase was available until early January, but Williams expects to see another surge of interest once the network goes online.
According to the Federal Communications Commission Broadband Map (December 2017), residents in Ponca City currently have access to broadband service of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload via a variety of technologies: cable, ADSL, fixed wireless, and satellite. FCC data, however, is notoriously flawed because it often overstates coverage. Ponca City Now reports that a 2015 survey found that 84 percent of the Ponca City Utility Authority customers were unhappy with the community’s Internet access options.
Research Creates Good Networks
Before building the network, the Technology Services department dove into the research on other FTTH networks run by cities across the country. They developed a conservative take rate estimate based on what other communities of a similar size had experienced. Then Williams's staff worked with the Finance department to balance revenues and expenses throughout the project, and considered lessons learned from a number of municipal networks that had not turned out as expected.
The city has also been installing extra conduit whenever the streets are open with excavation, a practice that will make a future citywide rollout of the FTTH network easier. Smart conduit practice, including this type of dig once approach, has helped many other communities create environments that encourage better local connectivity. In Lincoln, Nebraska, the city began with an extensive conduit system that has attracted a private sector partner to invest in FTTH. Similarly, in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, the city's dig once approach combined with other policies are bringing better Internet access to residents and businesses.
Williams said that the first phase is being treated as a learning experience and have experimented with ways to make the residential installs as quick and efficient as possible. Ponca City also could rely on its own experience running a citywide fixed wireless network. Their celebrated fixed wireless network will continue to be available to residents, and it continues to operate well. Williams told us that some people have bought boosters to use the free citywide fixed wireless service indoors. The network, however, was not designed with video streaming in mind; the FTTH network will be future-proof and able to meet increased demand.
Delays and Goals Build Excitement
Lighting their new FTTH networks has been delayed slightly by the recent weather. Oklahoma has suffered under some severe storms, and Ponca City was hit with major flooding. For instance, this video below shows a parking lot under a sea of water.
The flooding slowed the project by a few weeks, but it has mostly dried up after washing away a few roads. Instead of floating around the parking lot, people will soon be surfing the net on this new city owned network.
Although Williams expects the network to likely generate revenue for the city, the community is investing in the project for other reasons:
“It’s a quality of life issue. [The network] needs to pay for itself… [but] the goal is not to be a revenue generating engine.”
Photo of Ponca City downtown by Jeffrey Beall [CC BY 3.0]