Spokane Journal of Business

Zip! Bang! Cheney fiber network could sizzle

Latest phone, video, data technology would reach companies, public there

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Ever wonder what its like to travelvirtually, anywayat the speed of light? The city of Cheney says businesses and residents there eventually will know the feeling.

Once that city connects Cheneys homes and businesses to the fiber network it is developing, a system that transmits data via light signals in mirror-lined, glass-strand cables, users there will have Internet, telephone, and video capabilities many people dont even know exist. Beyond surfing the Web at lightning speed, Cheney users could lower their phone bills, save energy, and download video files at a fraction of the time it takes dial-up and DSL, or digital subscriber line, users now, says Cheney City Administrator Paul Schmidt.

The benefits of having the high-speed capacity just set us up for the future, he says. It gives us our own niche for attracting business and industry here.

To be sure, the fiber-to-home connection could be years away for some residents there. During the last year, the city has built the networks backbone and connected its eight municipal buildings to it. That first phase cost Cheney $700,000, paid for by a loan from the citys garbage fund.

The second phase, connecting home and business customers to the network, will cost about $12 million, Schmidt says. In February, the city of Cheney awarded Livermore, Calif.-based Alloptic Inc. a $6.1 million contract to implement the projects second phase once funds are in place. As envisioned, that money would come from a variety of sources, such as federal grants. For example, the city recently applied for a $1 million Rural Utilities grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The department denied Cheney the grant last week, but Schmidt says the city will apply for grants from that source, and others, again. Moving the project forward, though, hinges on receiving such funds.

Realistically, I think within a year well secure or be close to securing the first $2 million, Schmidt says. Its hard to say how that would progress thereafter.

What Cheney envisions for the long term is similar to whats already available for about one-third of Grant Count Public Utility District customers. That PUD chose three years ago to invest money from excess power-sale revenue$60 million, so farinto a fiber infrastructure that delivers some of the same products Cheney hopes to offer: broadband integrated voice, video, and data transmission.

Grant County PUD began rolling out the service in March of 2001, and the fiber network now is available to about 10,000 of the districts 32,000 homes and businesses. About 4,400 of those 10,000 customers have elected to tap into the service so far, which is more than Eric Briggs, the fiber accounts manager there, had expected.

The 44 percent take rate is mind-bogglingly high, he says. Basically, anyone who has a computer takes the service.

Most of those customers went straight from dial-up Internet service to fiber, a transition that might be comparable to driving a 1942 Studebaker one day and a 2003 Ferrari Enzo the next.

Of course, the Ferrari Enzo will set you back almost $700,000, while the fiber-to-home network in Grant County, called the Zipp Network, is saving users money, Briggs asserts. The PUD doesnt charge users installation or monthly service fees. Instead, it opens up the network to competing Internet service providers and telephone companies, which pay the district for access. The ISPs likely pass that charge on to the users, but at a user fee of about $20 a month, the rates are lower than most DSL services and comparable to fees for far-slower dial-up service, he says.

Internet service is only part of the equation, though, Briggs says. Users can elect to use an Internet Protocol (IP) telephone service, which transmits conversation over the networks fiber-optic lines. Calls made that way are clearer than those made over conventional analog lines, and users can link their phones to their computers and integrate their voice and e-mail systems to perform tasks such as forwarding a voice message as a digital audio file attached to an e-mail message, he says.

More significant to customers, though, is the ability to choose a telephone company other than the one customary local branch-exchange option, again spurring competition and lowering prices, Briggs says. Calls made through a fiber network could be considered local calls even if theyre placed between Ephrata and Spokane, he says.

Briggs projects that it will take up to another $20 million to extend the fiber-optic service to the entire district, which encompasses about 2,700 square miles.

The geographic area in which Cheney wants to offer fiber is much smaller, at about 350 square miles. That, in part, is why it wouldnt cost as much to complete the fiber-to-home project as it would for Grant County PUD.

Schmidt says Cheney residents can expect one day to get the same services available now in Grant County. An unlimited number of cable companies could tap into Cheneys proposed fiber network and compete for customers, he says. The city operates its own electric utility, and the long-term plan is for homeowners to manage their electricity accounts with the city from their personal computers, reducing the voltage supply when they dont need power.

Computer downloading times would shrink drastically. Downloading the 7.81-gigabyte movie A Beautiful Mind, for example, would take about 13 days using a 56K dial-up modem, Schmidt says. Downloading the same movie using DSL or cable connections, which are widely available in Spokane now, would take about two hours, he says. With a fiber network such as Cheney is proposing, getting Russell Crowe from cyberspace to your living room would take about a minute.

Residents and business owners wouldnt be the only winners, though. City employees work more efficiently now that the citys own fiber connection is functional, since theyre all networked on the same system and can share files, Schmidt says. The city of Cheneys own utility bills should dip now. Once its current telephone contract expires next year, Schmidt expects the city to save $20,000 a year by using an IP phone service. Thats about half of its annual phone bill, he says. Reading utility meters and resetting them when residents move out and move in could be controlled from Cheneys light department office in the future.

  • Megan Cooley

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