Bloomington, Ind., Joins Race to Deploy Citywide Fiber Network

Fiber can provide symmetrical upload and download speeds that allow tech startups to give as much as they demand; it responds to the growing trend of telecommuting employees; and ubiquitous broadband gives employees parallel service between work and home.

by Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind. / April 19, 2017

(TNS) -- A look at Bloomington's race for fiber infrastructure:

Sunday: IU experts provide a technical look at fiber — how it works and why we want it.

Monday: Internet providers share their service plans for the city.

Today: Technology and business leaders explain the importance of fiber.

Wednesday: Mayor John Hamilton discusses his plans for a citywide network.

A Bloomington-wide fiber network would benefit the real estate, business and technology industries, according to leaders of each sector.

Each has its own idea of what benefits a citywide fiber network might have in store for economic and residential development. Whether it’s an expectation or an essential, the general consensus is one of change.

“If we had fiber, I would say we would be one of the few towns in the country — let alone Indiana — that would have the whole town wired,” said Mike Trotzke, co-founder of SproutBox and CEO of CheddarGetter, two local tech-based companies. “That’s huge in the tech industry. That home connectivity and speed equals productivity, and that’s significant and meaningful for tech companies.”

Trotzke outlined some of the technical benefits of such a system, noting how fiber can provide symmetrical upload and download speeds that allow tech startups to give as much as they demand; how fiber responds to the growing trend of telecommuting employees; and how ubiquitous broadband gives employees parallel service between work and home.

Trotzke said he supported the city’s partnership with Canadian fiber infrastructure provider Axia because of its company policies.

He said the company, which has international experience, brings both expertise and a push for universal coverage to its broadband projects. Trotzke believes Axia will want to make sure Bloomington is a shining example, since it will be the company’s first project of its kind in the United States. Axia built a version of a citywide fiber network in Massachusetts.

Mayor John Hamilton gave Axia a three-week extension for its engineering feasibility study deadline. That study is now due to be released Friday and is expected to provide cost estimates, a map and a statement as to whether Axia will go through with the multimillion-dollar project.

Should Axia pull out, Trotzke is still optimistic.

“Even if this entire thing fails, we’re already seeing the benefit here,” Trotzke said, noting Comcast and AT&T’s recent efforts at marketing gigabit speed internet in Bloomington. “The only reason they’re pushing those services here is because we’re ahead of other markets.”

According to Lynn Coyne, president of the Bloomington Economic Development Corp., Bloomington’s status relative to other communities isn’t a matter of “they win, we lose, or vice versa.” Instead, Coyne said, a fiber infrastructure will allow Bloomington to take advantage of its own opportunities.

“Access to high-speed fiber enables many things, and unless you’ve actually used it, you may not know you’re missing it. That’s part of the problem,” Coyne said. “Part of it is an awareness of the advantages it brings, and how it can be used. It’s moving forward every aspect of a community’s well-being.”

Coyne listed businesses in the advanced manufacturing, software and life sciences development sectors as each having their own interest in a fully fiber-wired city. Others cited businesses in data analytics, medical teleconferencing, robotics, augmented and virtual reality, telecommuting, fulfillment centers and many other areas as benefiting from such an infrastructure.

“In modern economic development, a robust broadband infrastructure is an essential component,” Coyne said. “So much of what is going on in commerce today is driven through the internet. A high-capacity broadband fiber infrastructure is an enabler of economic development.”

Non-business uses might mean easier access to educational resources in an increasingly digital classroom, or real-time video conferencing with a physician.

“Those things are going to make day-to-day life better, and less expensive,” Coyne said.

To Jeb Conrad, president and CEO of the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, a ubiquitous fiber infrastructure is a way to efficiently take advantage of what’s already available in the city.

“We don’t have a workforce of 1.5 million to pull from like (Indianapolis), but our universities generate that workforce,” Conrad said. “I think (fiber) is an opportunity to capture a portion of the student population who really enjoy the environment here. We currently don’t have enough opportunities to do that.”

Conrad added most of the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce’s members are happy with their ability to get the internet speeds and capacity they need, but said fiber will serve as a “marketing gem for new business development.”

“They’re glad the option being considered by the city is a private investment infrastructure versus a public infrastructure,” Conrad said. “That seems to be a relief to the business community, to not be under a government entity.”

Luckily, according to Jim Regester, owner/broker of Re/Max Realty Professionals, office space is the most plentiful type of space available in Bloomington — especially when compared with industrial and retail commercial properties. That should be ideal for tech-based companies, dependent upon a few factors.

“Smithville and Comcast and AT&T have been able to meet the needs of business, to a certain degree, depending on location,” Regester said. “One issue, historically, has been if a facility doesn’t have it (fiber) in the building already or it’s a bit of a distance away, the user bears that cost of extending the private entity’s infrastructure, which can be a barrier. In today’s market, if they don’t have fiber, they write off that location, and that can affect the occupancy rate of commercial spaces as well as the employment rates of the community.”

Regester said citywide fiber coverage with space near downtown amenities would put Bloomington in an “extremely competitive position to field opportunities and be a bit selective.”

He said a vibrant downtown is also attractive to workers, which influences where companies locate.

“Eventually the (downtown) Trades District will fill up and we’ll see redevelopment along the B-Line (Trail) continue, so it’s critical to think out not just 10 or 20 years, but 50 years so we don’t diminish the potential of our future with this infrastructure,” Regester said.

Jeff Franklin, a Realtor with F.C. Tucker, said employees look for complementary supports within a community, such as the draw of a relatively low cost of living and a university.

“Especially with an educated population, fiber is absolutely paramount to anyone who has to be connected to the computer,” Franklin said. “It would be like telling someone they couldn’t have access to a cellphone or a landline; it’s like oxygen for someone who works from home. It becomes a nonstarter. We don’t even see a house if it’s not available. In my business, it’s a process of elimination. If they’re going down a checklist of different municipalities, they’re going backward and checking off the boxes. You look for reasons for them to say yes and not reasons for them to say no.”

At times, Franklin said, a fiber internet connection isn’t just a benefit; it’s expected.

“A lot of my clients move from other university cities. Oftentimes they’re from larger places, like Portland or Austin, and they have certain expectations associated with a major university,” Franklin said. “This is probably going to be something as vital as running water and electricity. Because of the different programs at (Indiana University) that rely on this, I think it’s an expectation, and the more we get ahead of that, the better.”

©2017 the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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