Network information from local Internet providers has been consolidated into a citywide map revealing the reach of Missoula’s service, and where it could be enhanced to make the city more appealing to businesses.
Acting on the request of local providers, the City Council also voted recently to reduce by 75 percent its fees to excavate and install new fiber-optic lines in the public right-of-way, something Councilor Caitlin Copple described as a nod to economic growth.
“It’s a gesture of good will to the service providers that we want to work with them,” said Copple, who chairs the city’s Economic Development Subcommittee. “It was a unanimous vote, and it shows Missoula is serious about business.”
The push toward greater connectivity and an open-access system dates back to 2012, when leaders from both the public and private sector joined forces to find ways to attract new businesses to town, and to grow those already here.
As part of that effort, the Bitter Root Economic Development District hired Magellan Advisers to explore the feasibility of creating a 21st century broadband system. The resulting study recommended self-financing a 60-mile network that offered open access to Missoula schools, businesses and government.
But supporters of that open-access network had no idea what level of service was already in place. They asked local providers – including Blackfoot Telecommunications, CenturyLink, Charter and Montana West – to join the discussion and submit their service maps.
The companies agreed to do so after they were promised anonymity to protect their proprietary information. The maps were submitted to ALPS Corp. in Missoula, which promised the companies information security.
“They were provided the assurance of absolute confidentiality,” said David Bell, president and CEO of ALPS. “We needed to know where and how extensive our existing fiber network was. Unless you know that, everything else becomes a gerbil wheel.”
Completed in late November, the map represents the only consolidated picture of existing Internet service in a major Montana city. Set over Google Earth, it reveals a rich fiber network running under downtown Missoula and the Reserve Street corridor.
While the map fails to reveal the capacity of that underground system, the extent of the network did come as a surprise. It suggested that a self-financed 60-mile network wouldn’t be necessary – at least as it was initially conceived.
“The map shows there’s significant fiber infrastructure in and around Missoula,” said Bell. “It has a surprising footprint even in the outlying areas around Missoula. To the extent of whether we had a robust fiber service, that question has been answered – we do.”
While the map revealed the extent of the local network, it also revealed something else. That spiderweb of fiber isn’t being utilized by local businesses, even those who sit along the routes.
Copple and other proponents of an open-access system described the disconnect as the “last mile” problem, or getting the broadband from the street into the business. In some cases, it’s a distance of 100 feet, but unless it’s resolved, Missoula could fall behind other cities with greater connectivity.
“What this map shows is that we don’t need to build an entirely new network,” said Copple. “We need to piece together what’s there and solve the ‘last mile,’ or 100-foot problem in an open-access way.”
Connecting to the network can be expensive for Main Street businesses. When construction fees are considered, tapping into the network can run as high as $20,000, experts said, and monthly service fees can run as high as $1,500.
“We’ve continuously heard from the providers that there’s a lot of fiber in the ground in Missoula,” said Marcy Allen, director of BREDD. “The big obstacle here is that it’s not being utilized. We want to reduce the costs and incentivize the private sector to deploy that to their customers.”
Allen said BREDD will issue a request for proposals early next year as it works to solve the challenges. It also will work to lower connection fees and get more businesses onto the system.
The City Council got a jump on breaking down regulatory hurdles in September when it voted to reduce its permitting fees for laying new fiber. The city cut its fee from a baseline cost of $2,078 for the first 600 linear feet to just $300 for the first 300 linear feet.
“The largest cost is that construction piece,” said Allen. “If we can put conduit in the ground when the ground is open for other projects, it doesn’t cost so much and it could help accelerate our broadband goals.”
Bell, who owns the Florence Building on Higgins Avenue in downtown Missoula, is currently upgrading his property’s Internet capacity at his own expense. The work isn’t cheap, he said, but it promises long-term benefits to his clients once it’s finished.
For Missoula to compete in the digital age, he said, it must connect to a reliable high-speed system.
“We want to light this building up to a gigabyte of capacity on Jan. 1 – that’s 200 times what we current have,” said Bell. “No building in downtown will have more bandwidth than the Florence. It provides a better, more attractive experience for our tenants.”