SiFi Networks to Deploy Open Access FTTH in Fullerton, California

In an April press release, SiFi Networks announced that they will be developing a privately funded open access Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network in Fullerton, California. The project will serve the city of approximately 140,000 people, with ISPs using the SiFi fiber network  to compete for subscribers. 

Getting Commitments 

SiFi approached Fullerton in 2013 after the city’s bid to bring Google Fiber to town didn’t succeed. City leaders were interested in the prospect of bringing a FTTH network to the community as an economic development tool and, after bringing the proposal to the city council, decided they wanted to work with SiFi. The project aligned with several aspects of the community’s Fullerton Plan, a revitalization and economic development master plan.

As part of the discussions, SiFi informed Fullerton that they would wait to begin construction until after 25-year Right-of-Way (ROW) permits were granted and the company had obtained lease agreements from ISPs who wanted to offer Internet access via the network. As part of the arrangement, SiFi planned to pass every premise, regardless of what type, by the end of 2021. In January 2014, the Fullerton City Council authorized the City Manager to enter into a Negotiation Agreement (NA) with SiFi Networks. Since that time, both parties have been working to fulfill the necessary steps to move ahead with construction. 

Now that funding is in place, ISPs have committed, and permits are prepared, both parties are ready to begin the project.

mictrotrench-man-w-conduit-small.jpeg SiFi will use a microtrenching method to install most of the conduit and will begin with what they call the “pilot phase” located in the southwest corner of the city. SiFi will take the opportunity to refine installation and delivery techniques, allowing the company to more efficiently deploy in the remaining zones around the city. Microtrenching is one of the tools SiFi uses as part of their FOCUS system of deployment.

Project Development and Funding

The project will be funded by the Smart City Infrastructure Fund, managed by Australian firm Whitehelm Capital and APG, centered in the Netherlands. The fund is designed specifically to provide long-term funding for Smart City initiatives and to encourage environments that are “more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”

The Fullerton project, a SiFi FiberCity network, will be the inaugural investment for the fund, but according to the joint press release, other cities have expressed interest in developing similar projects.

“We are excited to deliver our first FiberCity™ in the USA, an investment that sets the standard for fiber optic infrastructure as a core utility. We believe that this business model can transform the telecom market in the United States. Privately funded, open access networks will not only benefit residents and businesses but provide citywide platforms for Smart City applications including 5G, IoT and more.” stated Ben BawtreeJobson, CEO of SiFi Networks. 

SiFi Networks is also working with other communities, including Saratoga Springs, New York, and Salem, Massachusetts. The company designs, funds, and builds the fiber optic infrastructure and works with Internet access companies to establish services on the network to serve businesses and residents in the community.

Typically, these arrangements include contracts that transfer ownership of the fiber optic infrastructure to the municipality when the agreement ends. 

logo-ting.pngThe ISPs

Ting and GigabitNow have already signed up to deliver Internet access via the SiFi Network. Ting will offer residential symmetrical gigabit service for $79 per month and are taking early sign-ups now. GigabitNow is advertising a similar product along with a symmetrical 250 Megabits per second (Mbps) product for $60 per month and is also taking early sign-ups. Other products, including voice and a range of business services will be available.

For Ting, the venture into Fullerton will be the eighth community where the Canadian company plans to provide fiber connectivity, six of those communities having already launched. In many of those places, including Westminster, Maryland, and Centennial, Colorado, Ting is partnering with municipalities and providing services via publicly owned infrastructure.

You can hear Ting’s Director of Market Development and Government Affairs Monica Webb and Vice President for Networks Adam Eisner discuss the evolution of the company and some of the lessons they’ve learned as they’ve deployed networks. They talked with Christopher for episode 357 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, recorded during the April 2019 Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas.

GigabitNow builds their own infrastructure and delivers Internet access as a division of its parent company, IsoFusion, located in Seattle. The company came about as a partnership between two other ISPs in the Tacoma and Seattle areas. GigabitNow works in multi-tenant buildings as well as households and business premises. They have most recently developed a network in Issaquah, Washington, that serves about 4,000 premises.

The Community of Fullerton

Located in Orange County, about 11 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, Fullerton is a little more than 22 square miles in area. Along the north and western areas of the city, lies a low mountain range named Coyote Hills and former citrus fields are now growing housing subdivisions. The city’s economy has, at various stages, been driven by oil production, agriculture, food processing, and the aerospace industry. Now, California State University’s Fullerton campus employs more people than any other entity in town, with St. Jude Medical Center and U.S. defense contractor Raytheon among the top employers. In addition to Cal State, four other colleges and universities have campuses in Fullerton.

seal-fullerton-ca.jpeg As the birthplace of the Fender guitar, Fullerton has established solid connections to the music industry and developed a strong music scene. Local music festivals, colleges, and numerous venues attract musicians from all over the state and farther.

Residents in Fullerton have access to Spectrum Cable and DSL from AT&T throughout much of the city. AT&T U-verse is available in a section of the city and Sonic offers its fiber optic connectivity in a very small section of town. With an open access network passing every address and the possibility of multiple options available to every premise, current Internet access companies will need to be at the top of their game to retain existing subscribers.

Cautiously Optimistic

Open access networks offer subscriber choice, encouraging providers that offer services on fiber networks to go the extra mile for customers, offer competitive rates, and innovate. Likewise, existing ISPs that face competitive forces in Fullerton will need to improve their services  to retain subscribers. This arrangement allows Fullerton to increase competition, bring gigabit service to their community, and do so without bonding or borrowing. They’ve found a way to reduce the risk that comes with inactivity in a community that needs or wants better connectivity. 

The tradeoff is that Fullerton has no say over this network and SiFi and/or ISPs will decide the rates and terms on which local businesses and residents can use it. We learned key lessons in places such as Champaign-Urbana, where a private sector partner chose to sell its assets, that it’s prudent to include protections in such an agreement. Fullerton will have little capacity to guard its interests if SiFi decides to sell, goes bankrupt, or is acquired by an undesirable company, such as Comcast. Fortunately, that seems unlikely at the present moment. 

With new approaches in funding, deployment, and urban connectivity, the Fullerton project has the potential to set a new bar for competitive Internet access in densely populated cities. SiFi’s approach is exciting and will help to spread the gospel of the open network. The more ISPs willing to work on open fiber networks, the better. 

Learn more about the project by listening to Community Broadband Bits podcast episode 360. Christopher interviewed Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO of SiFi Networks.

Image of Cal State Fullerton by Arnold C {Buchanan-Hermit}