When communities consider building fiber, one of the first questions a community often asks me is how much fiber already exists in their community and how they can take advantage of it. The bad news I almost always have to give them is that their community probably contains several existing fiber networks that will be of little or no use to them. It seems there is a lot of fiber in the world that is not being put to good use.
So what do I mean by this? What I have found is that many communities have numerous existing fiber networks that have been built for one specific purpose and which can’t be used for anything else. Here are some examples:
- K-12 Schools. School districts often own fiber networks to connect all of their schools.
- Colleges. Colleges will often be on a different network than the other schools.
- Traffic Lights. A number of cities now have fiber systems that feed traffic lights.
- State Highways. They often have fiber network systems for cameras and electronic message boards.
- Federal Highways. They build for the same reason as state highways.
- Commercial networks. It’s more understandable why a network built by a telco, cable company, wireless company, or CLEC might not be available to a city, but most cities today contain a significant amount of fiber built by these companies.
I first ran into this issue in the late 90s when a city in Virginia asked me this question. I was helping them design a fiber network that would connect all of their government buildings. In doing so I discovered that there was already a fiber network built to traffic lights that probably already covered 80% of the network they were going to need – and they already owned it. But in looking deeper, we found that the traffic light network had been built with funds from the state highway department and that it had a prohibition in the funding language against sharing the network for other uses, including other uses by the city. That network was basically off-limits for any other use.
When you consider that building fiber can range in price from $25,000 per mile to place on poles, or $75,000 per mile to bury (in most places) or even up to $150,000 per mile in urban downtowns, it’s crazy to think that such money has been spent without considering all of the other benefits the outlay could have created.
I still see this all of the time and it is very common for a government-built fiber to be off limits to all commercial uses. But surprisingly there are often also prohibitions against other municipal uses. I can understand restrictions against commercial uses, even if I don’t like them. The fear is always there that when the government and commercial entities work together that it creates a chance for corruption. But this kind of fear should not be a reason to automatically write-off the opportunity for public-private partnerships.
I’ve always found that commercial companies are glad to share the cost of building a new fiber route. In the commercial world companies routinely share fibers and they typically create a clear division of the use of fiber pairs on a new route when multiple companies agree to share in the build costs. Governments could save a fortune if they would join into this well-established commercial practice of building fiber for more than one company.
But the restrictions of a government-owned fiber that precludes other parts of the government from using it are just wrong. When highway departments or universities or other big agencies build fiber and then don’t let other government agencies benefit from the expenditure something is very wrong and we have let bureaucracy override common sense. I often hear excuses for the practice such as the need for security, and frankly all such excuses are bosh.
I’ve told cities that there are two solutions when they run into this problem. One is to create a huge public stink so that the agency that won’t share the fibers might be shamed into doing the right thing. But the other fix is longer term, and that is to take full control of their rights-of-way. For example, one long-term fix is to require that anybody who digs a ditch in the ground must include empty conduit which will create a lot of opportunity for cheap fiber over time. But the best fix is for somebody in the city to act entrepreneurially and to get to know the fiber providers in town and develop partnerships with them. That is actually easier to do than you might think.