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Cleveland Moves Closer to Citywide Fiber Network

Cleveland is preparing to strike an agreement with fiber developer SiFi Networks, in pursuit of high-speed, citywide Internet infrastructure that promises to serve every household and business that wants it.

An aerial view of the Cleveland skyline including railroad tracks and neighborhoods in the foreground.
(TNS) — Cleveland is preparing to strike an agreement with fiber developer SiFi Networks, in pursuit of high-speed, citywide internet infrastructure that promises to serve every household and business that wants it.

A City Council committee approved the plan from Mayor Justin Bibb on Monday afternoon, and the full council is expected to provide final sign-off on Monday night.

Creating the privately funded network, which includes laying 13 million feet of fiber, is expected to take seven years. The New-Jersey-based developer intends to spend the next two years developing detailed plans, and five years more on construction, resulting in citywide service by 2030 that has speeds between one and 100 gigabits per second.

The undertaking, known as FiberCity, is expected to cost well over $500 million, and none of it will be shouldered by taxpayers, SiFi President Scott Bradshaw told City Council members on Monday. The city’s agreement with SiFi won’t be exclusive, so it won’t shut out other fiber providers from locating in Cleveland, Austin Davis, a special assistant to Bibb, said.

The company, backed by a pension fund, wants to build in Cleveland because it sees a profit-making opportunity over the coming years and decades, Bradshaw said. It makes money by building the infrastructure, then selling access to those lines to multiple internet service providers who do business directly with residents and businesses.

SiFi could pursue such a network on its own without a development agreement with the city, the way other fiber providers have. But a development agreement, which council is authorizing on Monday, will give the city more oversight, and smooth the otherwise cumbersome permitting process, city officials said.

As part of the deal, SiFi will pay for consultants that are selected and overseen by the city. Those consultants will help Cleveland process the large volume of permits needed, inspect the work of those laying the fiber lines, and monitor how the lines impact the city’s tree canopy, Chief Operating Officer Bonnie Teeuwen said. SiFi intends to use union labor from Illinois-based Always Underground Inc. to build the network.

The entire network would be underground.

Other U.S. cities where SiFi is working to build similar networks often opt for a trenching approach – where a strip of tree lawns, streets, or sidewalks are dug up so lines can be laid. But Teeuwen said City Hall didn’t want that approach in Cleveland, in part because of how curbs and sewers are configured. City officials were also concerned about how that approach could rip through roots and damage mature trees along the tree lawn, she said.

So the alternative SiFi is largely expected to pursue in Cleveland will be a boring method. Workers will drill down a few feet, then bore underground for the entire length of a street, minimizing damage and on-street visibility, Teeuwen and Davis said. That approach is expected to offer more protection for tree root systems, too, according to the city’s manager of urban forestry.

Small access points that resemble black dots will be placed in the tree lawn of each residence or business, making future hook-ups easier, Bradshaw said. In cases where tree lawns or sidewalks are trenched, or otherwise damaged, SiFi would restore them to the original condition, officials said.

The SiFi plan was pitched by Bibb earlier this year as one prong of a two-prong approach to tackling Cleveland’s digital divide.

SiFi’s offerings, at no cost to taxpayers, are expected to include market-rate internet service, higher speeds, and ideally, solid infrastructure that can serve Cleveland well into the future. Fiber networks today only serve select areas, most of which are on the West Side, leaving a little less than two-thirds of Cleveland without fiber access, Davis said.

The other prong involves nonprofit DigitalC, which won a $20 million city contract to provide wireless broadband at decent speeds and more affordable price points, starting at $18 a month.

During committee hearings, council members, including President Blaine Griffin, wondered whether SiFi’s network was too good to be true, given promises of citywide access and no taxpayer money involved.

Davis provided reassurance. He and Bradshaw said Cleveland’s lack of fiber connectivity so far actually made it a good candidate for SiFi’s long-term business model. The city plans to offer 30 years of right-of-way access to SiFi, plus five ten-year renewal options.

Said Davis: “There’s so limited infrastructure investment from the private sector in Cleveland that we’re a market opportunity. Over a long enough period of time, you’ll make money on us.”

Bradshaw said his company’s business model relies on diluting risk. By building the network citywide, then selling citywide network access to internet service providers big and small, SiFi relies on putting “not too many eggs in one basket,” he said.

SiFi is a relatively new company to the fiber game, at least in the United States. It began working in American cities in 2019 and has about 43 other cities under agreement, Bradshaw said. None of those networks have been fully completed, but some are under construction and some customers are already receiving access to multiple internet service providers, Bradshaw said.

Cleveland, he said, would be one of SiFi’s largest undertakings yet in the United States.

Among the cities where SiFi has projects somewhat like the one in Cleveland are Arlington, Texas; Kenosha, Wisconsin; and Rockford, Illinois, he said.

Some Cleveland City Council members were hesitant about what they saw as the untested nature of SiFi’s projects, citing delays or other issues that have cropped up elsewhere in the country. But Bradshaw has maintained the model is already showing its success in places like Kenosha, even if the network there isn’t fully operational.

If SiFi goes bust or abandons the lines within Cleveland’s public-right-of-way, ownership of those lines reverts back to the city, Davis said.

Griffin urged for other failsafe methods to protect against the project going awry. Davis said the city’s inspectors can always shut down work, and permits can be rejected along the way.

Bradshaw pitched the network as particularly exciting when it comes to smart device connectivity, and potentially, future municipal services that could tap into the network, such as traffic management technology, cameras, or gunshot-detection devices.

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