Google Fiber Comes to Iowa

The City of West Des Moines recently announced a deal with Google Fiber to bring fiber to pass all 36,000 residents and businesses in the city. This is a unique business model that can best be described as open-access conduit.

The city says that the estimated cost of the construction is between $35 million and $40 million and that the construction of the network should be complete in about two-and-a-half years. The full details of the plan have not yet been released, but the press is reporting that Google Fiber will pay $2.25 per month to the city for each customer that buys service from Google Fiber.

What is most unique about this arrangement is that conduit will be built along streets and into yards and parking lots to reach every home and business. I know of many cities that lease out some empty conduit to ISPs and carriers, but the big limitation of most empty conduit is that it doesn’t provide easy access to get from the street to reach a customer. West Des Moines will be spending the money to build the conduit to serve the last hundred feet.

This business arrangement will still require Google Fiber to pull fiber throughout the entire empty conduit network – but that is far cheaper for the company than building a network from scratch. The big cost of building any fiber network is the labor needed to bring the fiber along every street – and the city has absorbed that cost. The benefit of this arrangement for Google Fiber is obvious – the company saves the cost of building a standalone fiber network in the City. It’s the cost of financing expensive networks up-front that makes ISPs hesitant to enter new markets.

From a construction perspective, I’m sure that the City is building fiber with some form of innerduct – which is a conduit with multiple interior tubes that can accommodate multiple fibers (as is shown in the picture accompanying this blog). This would allow additional ISPs to coexist in the same conduits. If the conduits built through yards also include innerduct it would make it convenient for a customer to change fiber ISPs – disconnect fiber from ISP A and connect to the fiber from ISP B.

The City is banking on other ISPs using the empty conduit because Google Fiber fees alone won’t compensate the city for the cost of the conduit. The press reported that Google Fiber has guaranteed the City a minimum payment of at least $4.5 million over 20 years. I’m sure the City is counting on Google Fiber to perform a lot better than that minimum, but even if Google Fiber connects to half of all of the customers in the City, the $2.25 monthly fee won’t repay the City’s cost of the conduit.

This business model differs significantly from the typical open-access network model. In other open-access networks, the City pays for 100% of the cost of the network and the electronics up to the side of a home or business. The typical monthly fee for an ISP to reach a customer in these open access-networks ranges between $30 and $45 per month. Those high fees invariably push ISPs into cherry-picking and only pursuing customers willing to pay high monthly rates. The $2.25 fee in West Des Moines won’t push ISPs to automatically cherry-pick or charge a lot.

Any ISP willing to come to the city has a few issues to consider. They avoid the big cost of constructing the conduit network. But a new ISP will still need to pay to blow fiber through the conduit. Any new ISP will also be competing against Google Fiber. One of the most intriguing ISPs already in the market is CenturyLink. The company has shown in Springfield, Missouri that it is willing to step outside the traditional business model and use somebody else’s network. I would have to imagine that other ISPs in the Midwest perked up at this announcement.

In announcing the network, the City said that they hoped this network would bring fiber to everybody in the City. Google Fiber doesn’t typically compete on price. Earlier this year Google Fiber discontinued its 100 Mbps broadband connection for $50. Many homes are going to find the $70 gigabit product from Google Fiber to be unaffordable. It will be interesting over time to see how the city plans on getting broadband to everybody. Even municipalities that own their own fiber network are struggling with the concept of subsidizing fiber connections below cost to make them affordable.

One thing this partnership shows is that there are still new ideas to try in the marketplace. For an open-access conduit system to be effective means attracting multiple ISPs, so this idea isn’t going to work in markets much smaller than West Des Moines. But this is another idea for cities to consider if the goal is to provide world-class broadband for citizens and businesses.

Installing Fiber in Conduit

innerduraFuturePathGroupI thought I would take a break today from complaining about the FCC and instead talk today about how fiber is put into conduit. I know a lot of the people who read this blog are not technical and I figured some of you would want to know a little more about how fiber actually gets to where it’s going.

I’m looking specifically today about fiber placed in conduit. Conduit is used when fiber is installed underground in an environment where you want to either protect the fiber from damage or else be able to easily get to the fiber in the future. It’s possible to bury fiber directly, but most carrier class fiber routes use conduit.  There are three basic options for getting fiber through a conduit – pulling, pushing, and blowing.

In the first step of the installation process a conduit will be buried in the ground. Some conduit consists of a large empty tube that can hold multiple fibers. But today it’s becoming more common to use what is called innerduct conduit, which contains multiple smaller tubes inside of a larger conduit.

For long outdoor fiber runs the primary method used to install fiber in conduit is pulling. In fact, if you are installing large count fiber or heavier fibers, this is the only real option. Conduits made for this purpose come with factory-installed cords inside. The pulling process then consists of tying the fiber to the cord at one end of a run of conduit and then pulling out the cord from the opposite end. For long fiber runs the pulling is done with specialized equipment that can pull steadily and evenly to minimize any damage to the fiber. Fiber is strong, but it can be damaged during the installation process, which is why it’s essential before accepting a new run of fiber to first test it by shining a laser through to make sure the fiber survived the installation process. Damage from pulling is probably the number one cause of late fiber problems on long fiber routes.

In short fiber runs, such as inside of a central office or a home, the fiber can be pulled manually by hand. While fiber has a lot of flexibility, the fiber can be damaged by pulling it around tight bends or other impediments.

Pushing fiber is a technique that is only used for short runs of fiber. It’s exactly what it sounds like and you literally feed the fiber into one end of a conduit and shove the fiber through the empty conduit and hope there are no snags or bends that will limit your ability to make it the whole way through. Pushing fiber is the safest method to use since it puts the least amount of stress on the fiber. If the run is a bit longer, but still pushable, there are pushing tools that can apply steady constant pressure to force the fiber through the conduit.

Blowing fiber is perhaps the most interesting method used. Blowing fiber involves using equipment at both ends of the conduit to be filled. The machines force air into one end of the fiber, increasing air pressure, while at the opposite end of the fiber another machine draws air out of the conduit to produce lower air pressure. The difference in the air pressure draws the fiber through the conduit.

Blowing fiber can be used on longer routes as long as the fiber to be fed is not too heavy, perhaps 8 or 12 pairs of fiber. It’s vital when blowing fiber for longer distances to have conduit with very low-friction lining and no physical impediments.

Both pulling fiber and blowing fiber take specialized equipment and require following specific techniques to do it right to get the fiber through the conduit both quickly and safely. If you watch a fiber installation team and they are just sitting somewhere along the road, chances are that they are not being idle but are instead pulling or blowing the fiber through the conduit. All of these methods require knowledge and skill to do right without harming the conduit.