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Internet in Idaho: Big fiber-optic plans in little Ammon

The city of Ammon caught lightning in a bottle nearly a decade ago when it moved an unassuming plumbing inspector to information technology.

The tech school dropout who’d demonstrated a knack for problem-solving in his first two years was asked to explore building a fiber-optic network to improve operation of the city’s water utility.

The result was far more imaginative — an open-access fiber network unlike any in the world.

Many within the city worked to see this dream come to fruition — a progressive mayor, a City Council willing to look at things in a new way. But the vision largely belongs to Bruce Patterson.

Patterson first hired on with Ammon in 2004 as a plumbing inspector. An earnest person, Patterson kept his head down and did his work.

Mayor Dana Kirkham said while plumbers can only be so innovative, Patterson demonstrated an ability to find unique solutions.

“As we brought on software that was new to the city, Bruce understood it,” Kirkham said. “He was able to explain it in layman’s terms and he was able to go out and negotiate contracts. You could trust his opinion, and he was right more than he was wrong. Then he started to really kind of show his colors.”

Two years later the city looked at starting an IT department — a one-man shop — and some on the Council thought Patterson would be a perfect fit. Others were perplexed why the city was considering a plumber for IT work. Patterson took a half-and-half role, working part time in each position. Eventually he moved full time to IT and, in 2010, became the official department head.

Now Patterson has created a fiber network that experts say could become a model for future municipal networks throughout the country.

Recently, Ammon has achieved a spate of accomplishments. Patterson was invited to speak at an Federal Communications Commission event called “Model Cities.” The city was chosen to test out new Department of Defense software. The city won a National Institute of Justice contest for developing an application to enhance public safety.

AN UNLIKELY CHAMPION

After graduating from Idaho Falls High School in 1982, Patterson enrolled in a vocational programming course at Idaho State University. He was living with his parents in Idaho Falls while taking the bus to Pocatello every day for school. He also worked at Radio Shack to pay his way through school. It ended up being too much. He wanted to move out of his parents’ house and got offered a full-time job. So he dropped out.

He became a plumber, and had an accomplished 15 years on the job. Patterson said he trained plumbers around the state, and found his job rewarding. He never went back to school because he wasn’t having any issues supporting his family.

While Patterson said he isn’t embarrassed by his background, it has occasionally presented hurdles.

In 2011, Patterson put in for a research grant from the National Science Foundation. When filling out the form online to receive the money, it wouldn’t let him advance until he said what college degree he had. He called the foundation and they ended up overriding the requirement and listing him with a degree in “other,” and Ammon got the grant.

A SWIFT TRANSITION

In 2007, Councilman Brian Powell started prodding Patterson to create a fiber network to connect Ammon’s well houses. The well houses distribute the city’s water. The city is able to better monitor them after building the fiber network.

Patterson resisted. In addition to not knowing how to run a network, he believed it would be too expensive.

But Powell pushed him.

“It’s because he kept on that that I started to do more research and learn more,” Patterson said.

It didn’t take long for Patterson to get up to speed on fiber networks. After receiving what he felt were over-priced bids to build the network, Patterson opted to do it himself.

Why don’t customers have more of a say in the product they are buying, he thought. How can we move from this old model where service is lousy and expensive? He wanted to separate the infrastructure from the service to allow for more competition. He wanted a model that appeased consumers, not providers.

His research led to the realization that Internet infrastructure was becoming outdated as the demand for more bandwidth was increasing.

Patterson saw fiber as the answer, because as the demand for speed increases, the infrastructure wouldn’t have to be replaced.

He imagined a home in Ammon where the parents can stream a movie on Netflix after dinner while one kid plays video games online, another streams YouTube videos for homework and a third Skypes with her boyfriend. None experience a lag.

Glenn Ricart, a member of the Internet Hall of Fame for helping developing the Internet, said he stumbled upon Ammon’s network while looking at a map of municipal fiber networks. Ricart said the network is unlike any other in the world.

“I think it’s going to end up being a mainstay of the way we will be using telecommunications in the future,” he said.

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