(TNS) — The city of Chanute is one of only two Kansas towns to build its own fiber-optic communications network open to businesses in its community.
While unique for Kansas, a quick search of the internet shows it's not at all unique in the U.S., with municipally run broadband at locales from Florida to California.
It's also an idea some Hutchinson community leaders believe should be explored as a way to promote economic development here.
In Chanute, the city first began using fiber optics back in 1984 to support the city's electric utility operations.
"We had three locations we were trying to keep track of, but without SCADA it was a nightmare," said Chanute Utilities Director Larry Gates, referring to the acronym for a computerized monitoring system that records data from multiple remote locations and tells equipment how to operate.
In 2001, when the system needed upgrading, they decided to overbuild it, Gates said.
"We have an awful lot of city services – lift stations, water intake, water treatment, sewer treatment, even Wi-Fi in the parks," he said. "Those are all connected by fiber optic. We also do a lot of security monitoring, with cameras in key locations."
"The routes we took are where we put junction boxes," he said. "We did it next to the schools and junior college and the hospital. For the simple reason we started talking about getting them onto our fiber optic network is how we got started being an ISP (internet service provider.)"
That was 2005. Since then, Gates said, "we've expanded that quite a bit," offering it to businesses within the community.
"It's something we did not have here – ultra-high-speed bandwidth – and it's highly reliable," he said. "Once you're connected to the city of Chanute network, you don't have issues anymore."
The city has built its system, which now encompasses about 50 miles of cable, "one piece at a time," Gates said, noting it's the most expensive way to do it but was "pay as you go."
While not created for that purpose, it has served as an economic development tool, he believes.
For example, a drive-through restaurant in town wasn't able to take debit or credit cards because its connection was inadequate and unreliable, "and they were losing a lot of customers," Gates said. "It's a plastic world. People use cards to buy stuff."
Others use the system for voice-over-internet, which "is very popular," Gates said.
"The network provider was having real issues with reliability, continuously having calls drop."
The city was exploring building a city-wide system, to offer service to residential customers, when it became a political issue during a city election. The proposal was to bond the project, adding about another 140 miles of line.
"Some people ran (for City Council) on the basis of fiber optics, putting it to a vote of the people," he said. "We were two weeks away from authorizing a bond issue to do fiber-to-home for everyone on the electrical system when it was stopped."
That was in April 2015.
"We're still waiting on that public vote," he said.
Most of Chanute's lines are strung from poles and not buried, "but we have our own utilities" so that's not an added expense and a significant benefit for running its own system.
"We're a full-service city," Gates said. "We have electric, with our own electric generators. We have water, sewer, even our own gas. We have city trash routes and a landfill. We don't have telephone or cable TV."
The community is served by AT&T, which "is reliable," Gates said, but charges more than the city for internet service. They also have a cable provider, which Gates said is "not good service." Being a small community, "I don't think we'll ever see 5G networks."
"I don't know that by itself it's an economic development tool," Gates said. "But if you don't have that information highway, you won't see economic development. Everyone is demanding it. ... I think it's a big leveling item for our community. It allows us to compete."
Hutchinson city officials had a brief discussion about the city building a fiber-optic system about five years ago, said City Manager John Deardoff, but it never went further than that.
"We looked at the possibility of doing something like Chanute was doing, but at that time, there was huge up-front money," Deardoff said. "Certainly the payoff was there, but we didn't look into it far enough to see what it would look like."
At least one City Council member has expressed an interest in the issue, the city manager said, but "we haven't gotten into any serious conversations about a city utility."
"It would take a lot of investigation," he said. "A lot of information would have to be gathered."
There's also the issue, he said, of the "free enterprise thing."
The city this month is looking at its wide-area network plan, Deardoff said, linking city facilities without relying on an outside provider, "but that's about how far we've gone in terms of building our own."
That plan, said Hutchinson IT Director Todd Davis, actually involves very little fiber optics but mostly point-to-point communication using wireless radios, called "air-fiber." Building fiber-optic cables from just City Hall to the Public Works building, he said, would cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Hutchinson lawmaker Jason Probst, however, believes developing some type of high-speed fiber-optic system for Hutchinson is important for economic development.
"This is like any other infrastructure," said Probst, D-102nd District. "We build highways to move goods and services and treat them as tools of economic development. I believe the way to continue to move goods and services in the future is through high-capacity internet connections. If the community is not investing in that, and leaving it to private industry, it's subject to pricing mechanisms of the market, which is even more concerning now with what the FCC has done on internet neutrality."
"This is like the railroad," Probst said. "If the railroad came to town, the town grew. If it didn't, it died or started to decline. The same thing with highways. If we don't start thinking for the next 50 or 100 years and don't treat internet capacity as a means of economic development, we'll see the same fate as those communities."
Noting how internet technology expanded in a relatively short time "from when I was in high school and you had a 2400 baud modem that could only send text" to today's online international marketing that is reshaping retail trade, Probst suggested "we ought to step up to leverage that and take advantage, to make our community a part of it."
"I haven't had the chance to research it thoroughly, but I think a community like Hutchinson ought to start looking at what it would cost to build its own infrastructure, to bring in a company like IdeaTek, to use their expertise and maybe work with them under contract," he said. "We need to explore how much those things cost and what good can be gained."
Even something like a fiber system just along Main Street, available at low or no cost to entrepreneurs and retailers downtown or for the public using a coffee shop, could be a potential economic boon, helping draw businesses in to fill empty storefronts.
"I think at the state level, something could be looked at in terms of creating economic incentive, some assistive legislation that would help communities finance this, whether through a bonding mechanism or helping leverage locally raised money to pay for high-capacity infrastructure," Probst said. "We never seem to have a problem coming up with the money if a big corporate firm is looking to come to Kansas. This could be used to develop local talent and skills. To recruit high technological industries into the state, you need high-speed internet."
The Minnesota Legislature last year allocated $20 million in state funds for a "Border-to-Border Broadband" grant program, with a focus on assisting new and existing providers to invest in building infrastructure into unserved and underserved areas of the state.
The grants can provide up to half of project development costs, with a grant cap of $5 million.
And in October 2017, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced a second round of broadband grants for that state, awarding up to $7.5 million from funds previously approved in the state budget.
Kansas briefly had a Statewide Broadband Initiative, managed by the Department of Commerce. When federal funds for the program ran out in 2014, however, the program ended also.
©2018 The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.