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Future of Fiber: CU, Lumen partnership to offer citywide, high-speed internet connection

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After about 16 months of work, a $120 million fiber-optic network expansion by City Utilities of Springfield is on track for completion late next year. 

Crews began laying 1,110 miles of fiber-optic lines in February 2020, with a goal of completion within three years. As of early June, CU’s  portion of the collaborative project is about one-third complete, said Jeff Bertholdi, director of CU’s SpringNet division.

The project is a partnership with Lumen, an internet provider and parent company of CenturyLink. The two companies entered into a utility lease agreement, Bertholdi said. CU will handle installation of the lines, and Lumen will lease the lines and provide internet services via Quantum Fiber, its platform for fiber-based connectivity.

Officials declined to disclose financial terms for the lease agreement, but the initial lease period is 15 years, followed by three autorenewal periods every five years, Bertholdi said.

The utility lease model allows both parties to do what they do best, he said.

“The utility is really good at building infrastructure,” he said. “We generally own the utility poles and have access to the right-of-way, so it makes a lot of sense for us to build the fiber network and lease the network out to providers who are better at providing services.”

Making connections
While about one-third of the city’s lines were installed by the week of June 7, the rate of connection to the internet is about one-fourth of the city, said Steve Kirks, fiber market lead for Quantum Fiber.

After CU crews install the fiber, Lumen follows within about 90 days to connect the lines to its service and provide internet to customers in the area, Bertholdi said. Most of the north side of the city has been connected via the new fiber network. A portion between Commercial Street and Chestnut Expressway had been installed but not connected as of press time.

The week of June 7, crews were hanging fiber lines in southwest Springfield’s Greater Parkcrest Neighborhood. Bertholdi said the southwest corner is the next targeted area to complete.

Before the project began, fiber was available in some areas of the city, but primarily only to commercial customers and specific residential neighborhoods, Bertholdi said.

“It was going to bridge the gap to everybody, so it was a ubiquitous availability to everybody as opposed to what we had seen in the past which was cherry-picking neighborhoods,” he said.

By the time the project is complete – estimated in fall of 2022 – fiber internet will be available to 115,000 addresses   within Springfield city limits, with service accessible to all residences and businesses in the city. Kirks said Quantum Fiber is trending at getting about 3,000-4,000 addresses connected per month.

Bertholdi said the two main benefits of fiber internet versus traditional copper lines are speed and reliability. As popularity of streaming increases, having fast, reliable internet at home or in a business is more important than ever.

The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband internet as anything with a speed faster than 25 megabits per second. Quantum Fiber connection provides speeds up to 940 Mbps.

For perspective, the FCC lists the minimum Mbps needed for general internet browsing at 1 Mbp, while steaming high-definition video requires 5-8 Mbps per device. Streaming ultra-HD 4K video requires 25 Mbps.

“Most consumers today might struggle with a family all trying to stream different things in different rooms, because current broadband doesn’t really have enough to serve all of that,” Bertholdi said. “With fiber, you can watch as many 4K streams on different TVs as you want, and you don’t see that competition for the internet.”

Fiber-optic internet also offers more reliability, Kirks said.

“The neat thing about fiber internet is it’s fundamentally more reliable. We’ve relied on different types of cable over the years to get any kind of technology into our house,” Kirks said. “Back in the old days it was phone stuff, and that was a copper wire. That technology hasn’t really changed until fiber optics came along, and instead of electricity going down a copper wire, it’s light going down a tiny piece of glass.”

The fiber isn’t susceptible to potential damage or issues caused by lightning or water like copper wiring, he said.

“It offers the best compromise between speed, performance and reliability of all of the technologies that are out there,” Kirks said.

Once an area of the city is connected to the Quantum Fiber network, internet service will be available starting at $65 per month for residential and small-business customers,   according to the company’s website. Customers can check availability at their address at Q.com/Springfield.

Digital city
While providing fiber-based internet is not new for the company, the Springfield fiber network is the first market for Lumen where the entire market area will have fiber availability.

“We got a chance to lay the groundwork from scratch, as all fiber-optic cable,” Kirks said. “In most cases, a city grew up with a phone company doing service, and in our case we do have some of those areas, but this is an area where we weren’t the original phone company.”

Fiber is growing in popularity across the world as the internet moves into almost every area of life. A 2019 study by the Fiber Broadband Association found fiber broadband was available to 30% of U.S. households, with growth anticipated to 50% by 2025.

At 30%, the United States is behind other countries reporting much higher numbers – Spain, Portugal and Japan all reported numbers over 90%. 

Bertholdi said providing access to fiber internet across the city is a step into the future, especially given the high demand for internet service during the last year as people worked and learned from home, although the project began before March 2020.

“The project is bringing Springfield to the digital city level, making sure that everybody has access to high-speed gigabit fiber for schools, telecommuting, working from home, ‘teledoc’ visits – it’s really raised the bar for Springfield, and enables all the things that come along with being a digital community,” Bertholdi said.

Having reliable, high-speed internet access across the city will be a draw to Springfield for new business and increased development, he said.

“As we looked at broadband across the nation, it made sense to not be late to the game,” Bertholdi said. “As new businesses look at Springfield to locate here, they always ask, ‘What is fiber availability? Are you a digital city? Will our employees have access?’ We needed to make sure our answer, 100% of the time, was yes. We wanted to make sure that was the future.”

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