Treasure Valley's fiber-optic cables need better network

zkyle@idahostatesman.comMarch 19, 2014 

Without enough fiber, everything gets backed up.

Some Treasure Valley homes and businesses still rely on digital subscriber lines, cable, satellite and even dial-up to shuttle data across cyberspace. Valley data centers, hospitals, tech firms and other industries that need big bandwidth are already piped with fiber optics provided by TW Telecom, Cable One, Integra Telecom Inc. or the largest carrier in the area, CenturyLink.

Jim Schmit, Idaho CenturyLink's vice president and general manager, says his company's system is comprehensive enough to connect businesses needing the carrier's highest bandwidth offering — 1 gigabit per second — even if that means extending a fiber line.

"We're getting to the point where, for businesses in most places, we're within last-mile connections for most locations," Schmit says.

The Valley will need to expand its fiber infrastructure to keep up with the exponential increase of bandwidth that businesses and residences are demanding, says Jay Larsen, president of the Idaho Technology Council.

"We're OK with fiber in the Treasure Valley right now," Larsen says. "We're still at the front end of this major-analytics, big-data thing. I'm not exactly sure what things will look like in three to five years, but the more we explode into that area, the more the next phase of infrastructure will have to go that way."

Other local tech-sector leaders are less sanguine.

Ryan Woodings, CEO and founder of wireless-network software developer MetaGeek, says tech companies will need more bandwidth soon. Woodings says he was disappointed when MetaGeek's move in 2011 to the Jefferson Building in Downtown Boise was delayed by two months for fiber installation.

"This is a five-story office building Downtown, and there was no fiber until we moved in," Woodings says. "I think that's more common than not, which is kind of sorry. Even in Downtown, Boise fiber buildout is not where it needs to be, and I haven't heard any rumblings of that getting better."

Fiber is not only faster than cable, phone lines and over-the-air transmission, it's also more reliable, making fiber mandatory for data centers and other industries depending on constant bandwidth.

Boise's fiber network was good enough to attract DataSite, which will be the largest of three data centers in town when it opens in April.

Rob Wilson, vice president of sales and marketing, says DataSite chose the former Hewlett-Packard building on Bethel Court near West Franklin Road because fiber was immediately accessible. DataSite passed on several other sites it scouted around the country because they lacked fiber connections, he says.

But Wilson says the network is not good enough for the future. "The Treasure Valley's fiber network is adequate for the immediate needs of the area today, but more providers and additional miles of fiber will be needed to keep pace with the rest of the nation," he says.

BEATING GOOGLE

Patrick Lawless, founder and CEO of Boise voice recognition software developer Voxbright Technologies Inc., sees opportunity in the Valley's fiber appetite. He thinks he sees in Boise what Google is seeing elsewhere.

Google has positioned itself to monopolize fiber bandwidth delivery in a growing number of U.S. cities.

Its "fiberhoods" plan started in Kansas City, where Google committed to spending $100 million to build fiber rings in neighborhoods that will deliver 1 gigabit per second upload and download speeds to every home and business. Google says that's 100 times faster than the average U.S. residential broadband connection, and that speed can download feature-length movies in minutes or seconds.

Kansas City residents can subscribe to the service for $70 a month or pay $120 for a bundle of high-speed Internet, phone and cable TV. They can also tap into 5-megabit-per-second Internet access for free after a one-time $300 connection and equipment fee.

Google made similar agreements with Austin, Texas, and will likely buy the rights to a fiber loop already under construction and operated by Provo, Utah. Google is negotiating with nine additional cities, including Salt Lake City, and has targeted 34 cities as potential fiberhoods.

Burying and hanging fiber is expensive. Provo spent $39 million on its fiber ring before balking at the rising cost. That opened the door for Google to bid to finish the project, which will cost another $18 million, or about $700 per home for the 26,000 homes not yet connected, according to Forbes.

Lawless has carefully followed Google's expensive fiber grabs. Lawless says Google expects to lose millions for several years as it builds its customer base, undercutting competing carriers by about $30 a month on its Internet-phone-TV bundle while providing faster Internet service. After several years, he says, Google will monopolize digital services in its fiberhoods and rake in profits.

"Google can take losses for a long time," Lawless says. "Google has plenty of money."

He wants to beat Google — and other carriers — to the Boise punch. He hopes to build his own 2.6-mile fiber-optic loop and package digital services to apartment and office buildings in a manner similar to Google's.

The plan starts with the Owyhee Plaza building, the former Owyhee Hotel. The Owyhee is under renovation and set to open this summer with 32 apartments and however many businesses rent the 45,000 square feet of commercial space that will soon be available. Lawless is overseeing its fiber-optic installation.

The fiber will enable him to package 100 megabit-per-second Internet, cable TV and phone services to each customer. He says he'll charge customers around $99, the residential rate Cable One charges to bundle the same services with slower Internet speeds. Unlike many carriers, Lawless says his rates will not rise after three- or six-month introductory periods. Businesses at the Owyhee can also access state-of-the-art phone systems.

Lawless wants to build a fiber loop in an area bordered by Front, 12th, Bannock and 5th streets and sell the service bundles to businesses and new residential buildings.

"We're looking at the very heart of Downtown," he says. "Our initial focus will be on new, multitenant residential developments."

Lawless is optimistic the project is viable, though he hasn't yet figured out how much it will cost.

"This is something Voxbright is actively pursuing," he says.

Larsen, of the Idaho Technology Council, says the Treasure Valley will need similar investments, whether by Google, CenturyLink, Voxbright or other companies.

"Businesses that understand that and build the type of infrastructure necessary to support that will be the ones that survive," he says.

Schmit says CenturyLink will continue investing in its fiber network. He says he's not too worried about Google drowning out CenturyLink and the rest of the crowded field of Internet carriers in the Valley.

A gigabit-per-second connection is overkill for homes and most businesses, he claims.

"It's like having a fancy sports car," Schmit says. "It might go 200 miles per hour, but what good does that do if the speed limit is 60?"

Zach Kyle: 377-6464, Twitter: @IDS_zachkyle

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