On the internet Ammon residents can express interest in fiber optic internet service at getfiber.cityofammon.us. The city will determine its next installation district based on residential enthusiasm hot spots.
Jeff Klingler was intrigued by Ammon’s fiber optic internet system when it was introduced to him during a city open house in 2015. A cybersecurity researcher, he’s spent several decades working with computers, including for the government. He’d never seen anything like the “Ammon Model.” Klingler spent subsequent summer days visiting neighbors door-to-door, telling them about the system and why they should sign up. The city broke ground on its first commercial fiber district in August. A router with a flashing green light was eventually mounted on a wall in Klingler’s garage. He began using the network in December. After months of waiting, he wasn’t disappointed. “I’ve lived in a lot of places — Maryland, Hawaii, Germany — and this is by far the best, fastest and most reliable internet I’ve had,” Klingler said. “This is the future.” First district comes online Most conventional internet service providers lay their own cable or fiber in communities. Because it’s expensive to dig up earth and install cable lines, few ISPs move into an area with established vendors, so there’s less competition. The 2016 American Customer Satisfaction Index found that ISPs, with poor customer service and one or no high-speed options in many areas, remained the weakest companies among 43 telecommunications industries considered. Klingler used Cable One before switching to fiber. He wasn’t satisfied. “Especially with the data caps and fluctuations in speed,” he said. In Ammon, fiber infrastructure belongs to the city, and is systematically installed in local improvement districts. The city’s first district is composed of the Cottages, Mountain Valley Estates, The Villas and Stonehaven subdivisions. Residents can choose to opt into fiber service. Those who do can pay installation costs up front, or amortized in the form of a home-tied bond. Installation is funded in the interim with city reserves that will be reimbursed by homeowner payments. The first district homeowners pay about $3,000 for installation. Installation prices fall if more residents opt in. Out of 369 residential properties in the first district, 239 have signed up for fiber service. Additional homeowners tend to opt in when they see their neighbors getting fiber, said Ammon Technology Director Bruce Patterson. He expects the final first district tally to reach about 250 homes. Twenty-two homes are currently active with fiber service. The city paused installation for the winter, and will resume once the ground thaws. Using the marketplace With fiber already available, ISPs are able to plug into a module in city headquarters and provide service without costly cable installations. “The city’s built the road, so anybody can drive on it,” Klingler said. Though conventional cable internet speeds usually drop during peak hours, Patterson expects the city’s fiber infrastructure to resist fluctuations for a decade or two, at which point relatively painless upgrades are possible. In addition to the cost of installation, residents pay a monthly $16.50 utility fee to the city and whatever their ISP charges for internet service, which currently ranges from $20 to $109 per month in the marketplace. Patterson’s innovative model has earned the city several awards. Patterson and Mayor Dana Kirkham also have spoken about the system to audiences around the country as larger municipalities look to create something similar. Unique to Ammon is the digital marketplace. Internet plans of varying ISPs, speeds and contract lengths are available through a city website. Many plans don’t involve contracts because there’s no need for ISPs to recoup heavy fiber installation costs. In that case, a customer can switch to another ISP on the fly if they’re unhappy with their service. “I believe this is the role the city should be in. We shouldn’t be the ISP, but instead give you multiple provider choices to let them compete,” Patterson said. “At the end of the day we want to create this environment where people say ‘This is my favorite provider,’ and the neighbor next door says ‘I like these guys instead; I’ve used them for three years.’” The need for speed Klingler is trying out Direct Communication’s 1,000 megabit per second connection for $109 per month. “It’s overkill, but I just thought I may as well try the fastest one,” he said. Klingler recently spent a day backing up about 900 gigabytes of photos, videos and music to the Amazon Drive cloud storage system. With a conventional network — which uses copper lines invented more than a century ago to transmit phone signals — the process would’ve taken all year, Klingler said. Fiber connections are symmetrical, meaning a 1,000 Mbps plan offers such speeds for downloads and uploads, which is important for backing up data, gaming and video chat. When Klingler used Cable One, he typically had 60 Mbps download speeds and 5 Mbps upload speeds. Though he switched to the fastest plan available on Ammon’s marketplace, most would find such speed unnecessary. The cheapest plans is 75 Mbps for $20 per month, comparable to conventional cable costs. Installation expense as barrier Without installing cable lines, ISPs can keep prices low. “We can just focus purely on providing the broadband service instead of being the utility company too,” said Brigham Griffin, marketing director for Direct Communications. Rockland-based Direct Communications was one of the first ISPs to begin collaborating with the city on its fiber project about four years ago. Direct Communications has never provided service on another entity’s infrastructure; it requires ISP and city personnel coordination on server and other system integration. The unfamiliar process creates hiccups, Griffin said, but has mostly gone smooth. Though Direct Communications has installed fiber lines elsewhere, most companies shy away because it’s expensive, Griffin said. Google stopped laying fiber across America last year, likely in part because of high costs. Encouraging competition In Ammon, ISPs pay the city a flat $49.50 per month to use its fiber lines regardless of how many customers sign up for their service. “We tried to make sure the barriers to entry were as low as possible to encourage competition,” Patterson said. “There’s the potential for market disruption. If somebody else can get to you cheaper and present a better economic number, they have the potential to disrupt the marketplace, which is better for all of us.” Though only two providers — Direct Communications and Fybercom — offer service through the marketplace, the city is talking with additional ISPs who want to join, Patterson said. “And we’re happy to work in that environment because we don’t have that equipment cost up front,” Griffin said. “That competition cost is offset by higher margins because we don’t have the technology to install.” With ISPs using similar technology, Griffin said, companies will likely differ in customer service: a point of frustration for many conventional cable users who are limited to one or two internet choices in their region. “How does a provider really differentiate itself if everybody’s on the same fiber network? The challenge now is not defined by what media we are using; it’s now what experience does the customer have. Everything’s going to be differentiated by customer service and other technical features about your internet service,” Griffin said. No going back The city expects to finish its first district installation by May or June, Patterson said. The city is gauging interest for fiber in other neighborhoods with an online sign-up sheet. Patterson expects to look for the next local improvement district — based on sign-up hot spots — this month. He expects it to be roughly 600 homes overall: twice as large as the first district. Installation may begin by summer. Klingler, meanwhile, has been helping his neighbors set up connections and fix glitches. Fiber is difficult to explain at times, he said, but people never go back once they’ve experienced the speed and reliability. “It’s exciting. I kind of saw the vision of it when I first saw them present it, and that’s why I put so much time into it,” he said. “We are the guinea pigs of this, but everyone has been really patient because they’re getting something really cool. Nobody else is doing this in the world.”
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 542-6762.
Reporter Kevin Trevellyan can be reached at 542-6762.