On July 21, the City Council of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin passed a resolution to fund construction on a segment of what could become a citywide, high-speed fiber optic project. Construction will take place in the city’s Smith’s Crossing subdivision, parts of Main Street, and the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District 9/St. Mary’s development area. It is slated to begin in early September and last through December 1, weather permitting, and will cost an estimated $640,000.
The mayor of Sun Prairie, Paul Esser, believes that going through with this project is the correct move for the City. He was recently quoted in the Sun Prairie Star:
Moving ahead with the pilot project in Smith’s Crossing is the right way to go. I believe that as an early adopter of this technology we will have an economic development advantage which will attract companies that require this broad bandwidth.
The fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) construction at Smith’s Crossing is seen as a testing ground for a larger FTTP network construction that would extend 200 miles of fiber and have the potential to connect all of the city’s homes and businesses. Currently Sun Prairie has about 30 miles of fiber. If Sun Prairie can successfully build out this citywide network - costing an estimated $26.7 million for the whole city - it could rival that of Reedsburg, Wisconsin, which began construction on its fiber-to-the-home network in 2003. Reedsburg has seen numerous economic development benefits and has created a considerable amount of community savings from lower prices.
The city of Sun Prairie initially invested in fiber optic technologies in 1999. In that year, the City built a fiber ring for the school system. Rick Wicklund, the manager of Sun Prairie Utilities, estimates the fiber ring will save the school $2 million by 2019. The fiber also runs to about 28 businesses and more than 130 Multiple Dwelling Units (MDUs), according to Wicklund. Now, Sun Prairie Utilities is looking towards residential markets.
Officials are calling the Smith’s Crossing construction a “pilot program.” They chose the location on account of its pre-existing physical infrastructure and population density. According to the Sun Prairie Star:
Wicklund said Smith’s Crossing is a good location because the neighborhood has existing ducts through the subdivision and is a dense area with positive demographics for the service: those who have dropped phone land lines and cable.
An upgrade to fiber could be exactly what Sun Prairie residents need in order to stimulate economic development and attract businesses to the city, which sits just more than 10 miles from the college town of Madison. Sun Prairie residents are currently served by incumbents Charter and Frontier - ISPs that rely on outdated technologies unable to provide the gigabit speeds that fiber can supply. Sun Prairie Utilities initially wondered if these incumbents might be willing to build a fiber optic network themselves, but they were unwilling to offer fiber optic services. City alder John Freund, speaking in 2014, indicated the incumbent’s unwillingness to make the switch to fiber:
It was a good conversation and certainly as we looked at partners they would be the most likely partner in the community, but it was pretty clear that they weren't interested in taking this project on themselves and providing us this service at no cost to the city.
Now, it appears these industry competitors are actively opposing the proposed municipal network. In early July, incumbent ISPs pitched city officials about the negatives and past failures of municipal projects. As the Star reported earlier this month:
Industry competitors spent more than 90 minutes telling city officials why it’s a bad idea, highlighting failures in other municipalities, questioning the utilities’ ability to handle operations, and even hinting, if it goes through, they’ll cut jobs in the Sun Prairie area.
Incumbent pressure is nothing new for municipal networks, but it is more unsettling in the case of Sun Prairie, where City officials have gone out of their way to work with these companies - as we reported back in January of 2014. Incumbents often threaten to invest less if faced with a municipal network, but an increase in competition often spurs more investment, not less, as they suddenly fear losing customers that have a real choice in providers.
Wicklund believes that the pilot project would be cash positive within three years if it can achieve a 30 percent take rate. According to a feasibility study, a city-wide network would be cash flow positive by year four and net income positive by year six, assuming a 35 percent take rate across the 13,500 homes passed.