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Detroit to Put $10M Toward Open-Access Fiber Network

The city has set its sights on building an open-access fiber network that will serve a neighborhood of about 3,200 households. Officials plan to use $10 million in American Rescue Plan funds for the pilot.

fiber optic
(TNS) — After Bruce Patterson’s success designing a network to serve the residents of Ammon, he decided last year to depart and work to help other cities build similar open-access networks.

“I was very interested in helping others replicate what Ammon did,” Patterson said.

And there has been a lot of interest.

Perhaps the most significant taker is the city of Detroit, which is planning to use $10 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to build a pilot open-access fiber network that will serve a neighborhood of about 3,200 households. And while Detroit city officials have done lots of their own innovation to build a network suited to local needs, they’ve kept their eyes on the system built in the Idaho town of 16,000.

“The city we’re getting the most inspiration from, bar none, is Ammon,” said Joshua Edmonds, Detroit’s director of digital inclusion. ”Bruce Patterson’s service has been invaluable. That experience there has made him a national asset.”

Edmonds said the open-access model offers additional benefits for residents of Detroit. Roughly 30 percent of city residents live in poverty, and that is the biggest obstacle to broadband access.

“Eight out of 10 residents are saying cost is their biggest barrier,” said Edmonds, referencing a recent public survey.

And the idea of building their way out of the problem is popular.

“What we find is 82 percent of Detroit residents are in support of public, high-speed Internet,” Edmonds said.

The affordability problem isn’t unique to Detroit. It’s now the most common obstacle to Internet access around the country.

Affordability has displaced the so-called “last mile” problem that used to have center stage in broadband discussions, Patterson explained. There were too many homes with Internet nearby but with no physical network to allow the home to connect to service. Now more often than not there’s a network but too many people can’t afford to get on it.

“We have to now start worrying about equity and affordability, not just access,” Patterson said.

That’s especially true now because broadband has become an essential service like electricity or water — so much of modern life depends on it. You fill out the census online, get news to inform your vote online, and engage in commerce.

“From the very sources of civic participation, to where you want to eat tonight, those are now online transactions,” Edmonds said.

The neighborhood targeted for network development, located in west-central Detroit, has highly unreliable Internet infrastructure. Outages lasting weeks or even months have occurred frequently.

At best, Edmonds said, Detroit residents generally find themselves in a duopoly, with a choice between getting service from Comcast or AT&T. In many neighborhoods, only one of those is available, meaning one company has local monopoly powers.

Implementing its version of the Ammon Model means Detroit can avoid creating an Internet monopoly, which it would then have to subsidize so that lower-income residents could afford access.

“Fiber is a solution, but what we don’t want to do is be in the position of picking a winner and then being at the mercy of the winner,” Edmonds said.

Patterson said federal policy has shifted recently to support public infrastructure-based solutions, rather than relying on subsidies.

In the past, there were federal programs to help low-income families gain broadband access, but they worked like heating subsidies. A family could apply, and the government would send vouchers to pay part of their bill, subsidizing the profits of the company that had a monopoly in their neighborhood. Now, infrastructure projects are much more attractive.

“It is unique compared to anything historically,” Patterson said. “The money that’s out there for the very first time is very slanted toward having a public entity involved.”

It would be a good time for cities in the Treasure Valley to consider pursuing a similar model.

©2022 The Idaho Statesman, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.