Whenever a city wants to install high-speed Internet — be it for economic development, cost-savings for emergency responders or local schools — it must first answer a question: low or high?
If a city puts its fiber cables underground, it has to close down traffic, pay the cost of digging equipment and endure the risk of unexpected obstacles like a hidden sheet of rock. If it decides to string up the fiber along utility poles, it has a lot of legal maneuvering, negotiations and paperwork ahead of it to secure permission — before it signs on to pay a leasing fee that never goes away.
In Stillwater, Okla., and Fauquier County, Va., people are trying a third option. They are, for lack of a better term, gluing it to the ground.
“When you think of broadband, the fiber-optic cables are usually up in the air or they’re buried underground,” said Meagan Kascsak, communications coordinator for the city of Stillwater. “This is kind of in between, it’s on a hard surface like a street or a parking lot in this case.”
The city’s pilot project, which began in May 2017, is one of the first for a startup based in the greater Washington, D.C., area called Traxyl (stylized as TRAXyL). The company has patented methods to adhere fiber cables to hard surfaces using substances that should protect them from basically anything, from weather to 50-ton excavators.
The company’s still working out the exact formula it will use for the resin coatings, but central to the process is methyl methacrylate. Usually called MMA, road-managing agencies — more in Europe than the U.S. — typically use the stuff as a hardier version of paint for traffic markings. Sellers market it as an alternative that can stand up to abuse in colder climes. Some use it as a quick option for installing new floors.
Traxyl is mostly looking at it for last-mile applications. That is, if a city installs a fiber network, it could use the company’s product to run fiber from that central network to the actual customers that will use it.
The substance takes about 15 minutes to cure, meaning fiber can be laid quickly without closing off the area for too long.
But probably the biggest potential benefit of the MMA approach is cost.
“Our costs aren’t identified yet because we’re not at scale, we’re still a small startup, but we’re thinking about costs of $5 a foot and even lower with scale,” said Daniel Turner, Traxyl’s founder and CEO. “Trenching can be anywhere from $15 to $300 per foot, depending on what obstacles you’re getting into.”
And that’s what has Fauquier County Public Schools excited.
“As far as school systems are concerned, it’s all about bottom-line cost,” said Todd Hickling, the school district’s information services manager. “So we have to get the best most cost-effective option, so that’s obviously going to be right up there.”
Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, said bringing down the installation time and cost of last-mile connections could change several things for local governments looking to build networks. For one thing, it could make it easier to justify building into less densely populated areas.
“If you can really lower the costs of getting the last mile out there, then you don’t need as many customers to break even,” Mitchell said.
It could also give local governments more flexibility when it comes to planning. In many places, governments that want to bury fiber will wait until some other project opens up the ground first. That’s a cost-saving measure, but it means waiting.
Traxyl’s approach could give them a way to quickly establish a connection, then make it more permanent later.
“If I was doing this as a city or county, I’d look at this as a way to get fiber out quickly and then over the next five or six years, get it underground,” Mitchell said. “So you can have your network, achieve your purposes and then try to have a more substantial underground network.”
Mitchell’s main concern about Traxyl’s approach is the possibility of cables being damaged. Maybe tree roots push up through a sidewalk the cables are glued to, for example.
“My concern would be one of liability, and particularly I’m dealing with lots of local governments where they want to make sure the police are well-connected, and you don’t want a technology that somebody could inadvertently or [intentionally] disable so easily,” he said.
Turner is confident in the product’s ability to protect cables from overhead trauma. In Stillwater, the city intentionally ran snowplows, trash trucks and other big vehicles over the line to test it and it’s still working for them. He said the product barely rises off the ground, so it doesn’t provide an edge for things to catch on.
But tree roots aside, there could easily be reasons for the city to need to move or even destroy fiber that it has glued to the ground, like sidewalk repair or resurfacing. In those cases, Turner said, there are options to remove the coatings.
Ultimately, he said, it’s a matter of cost. And Traxyl’s goal is to bring down installation costs so far that it’s not a big deal to mitigate those concerns — by laying down redundant lines, or perhaps by simply destroying one line and laying down a new one.
After all, fiber itself is not that expensive. It's all the labor it takes to install it that drives up the total cost of a project.
“One of our thoughts is if we have it on multiple sides of the road and it’s on every road, you start building this mesh network effect where you’re not as worried about outages anymore as you are if you just have a single cable,” Turner said.
And the product might need attention a tad more frequently than buried cables. Turner said agencies that use MMA for road paint have reported 10-year lifespans, but according to Mitchell cities that bury fiber expect to have it in place, unperturbed, for multiple decades.
Traxyl is still just getting started, but it is ticking the boxes of progress through startup-hood. It’s secured five pilot projects, it participated in the Dreamit startup accelerator program, it’s gained entry into the Halcyon House Incubator in Virginia and it just won a small business innovation award of about $225,000 from the National Science Foundation.
“We’d like to get our machinery or tools into the hands of installers across the country,” Turner said.