Articles

Fairlawn, Ohio, Invests in High-Speed Internet

The small suburb has invested $10 million in fiber installation as a part of their new broadband utility, FairlawnGig.

by Rick Armon, Akron Beacon Journal / January 30, 2017
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) -- FAIRLAWN: Mike and Shannon Perkins would get annoyed.

Their three kids even more so.

Whenever they tried to stream a television show or movie on Netflix or Amazon Prime, it always seemed to come to a grinding halt and buffer and buffer and buffer and …

But no more. The Perkins family has jettisoned their private internet provider and recently became one of the first households in the community to connect to FairlawnGig, a new city-owned, citywide and super-fast broadband utility.

The Akron suburb is investing about $10 million to install fiber — which will deliver speeds of up to 1 gigabit — on every street in the community and the Joint Economic Development District, bringing not only internet service but also phone service literally to the front doors of homeowners and businesses alike.

The city is now flipping the switch on the first installations.

While his household already is enjoying the service, Mike Perkins, 44, a business development manager, sees benefits that extend well beyond his home.

“It’s going to make [Fairlawn] much more attractive,” he said. “Fairlawn is at the forefront and everyone else is going to be playing catch-up.”

Broadband utility

Rather than seeing the creation of an internet and phone utility as a financial risk, Mayor Bill Roth and other city leaders view it as a community asset that can be used to lure residents and businesses to Fairlawn.

Internet service is, after all, commonplace today, with more than 77 percent of U.S. households having an internet subscription.

Many households also are dumping cable and satellite television — commonly called cutting the cord — and getting their entertainment and sports through streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Crackle and Sling TV.

“This is what makes us competitive,” Roth told the Fairlawn Area Chamber of Commerce during his state of the city speech earlier this month. “This really puts us on the map.”

Fairlawn is in rare company when it comes to its new utility.

USTelecom, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association, estimated in late 2015 that only 83 communities in the country had a publicly owned network that reaches most or all homes in the community.

Hudson began offering the same type of service in 2015 in portions of the city with the launch of its Velocity Broadband, but it’s only available to businesses at this time.

The money

Fairlawn financed the project through revenue bonds with an agreement with the Development Finance Authority of Summit County.

The city contracted with Fujitsu Network Communications Inc. to design the system. The company also will be paid about $500,000 a year to maintain and operate the network.

Fairlawn doesn’t see the utility as a money-maker. But it also doesn’t expect to lose any money on the venture.

About 35 percent of the 4,100 households and businesses in the city need to sign up for Fairlawn to break even. So far — with the service not even available in the vast majority of the community and only about a third of the construction done — more than 1,400 customers have signed up.

In the high-end Rosemont development along South Cleveland-Massillon Road, where the first installations are taking place, 80 percent of households have signed up.

The signs of progress are all over — whether it’s the bright orange and blue plastic pipes poking out of the ground or yellow and orange flags dotting front lawns. The city hopes to have the fiber connected throughout the community by the end of the year.

Fairlawn has even been getting requests outside the city for the service and will consider expanding the network to neighboring communities once the installation is complete inside its town.

Public vs. private

Ernie Staten, Fairlawn’s deputy director of public service who is overseeing the project, wouldn’t comment on how private companies may feel about the city encroaching on their business.

FairlawnGig is essentially stealing customers from private firms.

The industry nationwide has been pushing for laws to limit the ability of municipalities to launch their own networks.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association and Ohio Cable Telecommunications Association didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Public benefits?

One of the benefits of the public network, the city believes, is that all customers pay the same, as opposed to some receiving introductory or special rates.

While there are no discounts to entice new customers, the city is connecting homes and businesses for free if they sign up now.

Workers will even help residents and businesses hook up their devices to the Wi-Fi.

Fairlawn is offering a much faster speed for about the same price provided by private companies.

The city offers speeds of up to 1 gigabit (1,000 megabits) for $75 a month. The Perkins family was paying nearly $80 a month for up to 30 megabytes, plus a landline phone.

Staten also noted that rates can’t go up unless approved by City Council, giving residents some input in the utility. The computer servers are housed at the public service department, where the city also is renting cloud service space to other companies.

There have been a couple concerns about the local government keeping an eye on residents.

But that won’t be the case given the fact that Fujitsu is operating the system for the city, Staten said.

Positive feedback

Customers so far are pleased with the service.

“The difference before and after is phenomenal,” said resident Rick Rissmiller, who also was one of the first households to receive FairlawnGig. “You don’t see any pausing.”

Rissmiller, 58, who runs an engineering firm in Wadsworth, has been happy with the customer service as well.

There were hiccups — like his Invisible Fence being severed a few times — but workers always repaired the problem.

“Every time I was impressed with how personable they were and they wanted to communicate and let us know what was going on.

In Perkins’ case, workers even came back once to the house because he was having issues streaming through his son’s PlayStation gaming system.

“Everybody is happy,” Perkins said. “I haven’t heard my son once say, ‘Dad the internet is slow,’ and I used to hear that all the time.”

©2017 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.