Six years ago, with no experience as an internet service provider (ISP) or telecom service provider, Google Fiber generated an immense amount of excitement by announcing that the company was going to build a gigabit-speed fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network for Kansas City, Mo., a city chosen from more than 1,000 applicants. Two years later, Google Fiber announced more cities; before it was through, it had 34 cities on its map and was expected to create a system comparable in size to the big cable TV (CATV) companies.
Google Fiber changed the perception of what an ISP could be. Many in the industry were impressed by how cheaply Google Fiber was able to connect users. In some Google Fiber cities, people waiting for connections received a gift: their current CATV or phone company significantly increased the speed of internet connections in order to be competitive.
What Google Fiber did affected a lot of people in small towns and rural areas where ISPs, usually a local phone company or CATV company, were not going to invest in their systems to provide Google Fiber type service.
Because the Fiber Optic Association (FOA) had been covering the progress of Google Fiber in its newsletter and had many technical pages of information on FTTH on its website, we started getting calls several years ago. The question was always the same, “Can we build our own gigabit FTTH network?”
We tried to be neutral in our answers. While it is possible, it wouldn’t be easy. You need to learn more about fiber optics so you can make informed decisions. You need to talk to potential customers in your area and see if enough of them are interested. You need to find financing, perhaps grants, and be realistic about how much it will cost and how long it will be before a network will show positive cash flow. You need to find suppliers, and you will need fiber optic contractors unless you have the ability to do construction yourself.
What surprised me the most was how strong the enthusiasm was from most of the callers. Not having fast internet or any internet at all seemed to be an incentive, of course. Two years later, two of the first contacts we had are now well-established gigabit ISPs. They represent two ends of the spectrum of potential do-it-yourself FTTH folks.
Greg Turton was one of the first callers with the desire to do it himself. He is a second-generation real estate developer in rural Cordele, Ga. He took over the business his father started, and his company has built more than 800 homes and several hotels in this small town about two hours south of Atlanta.
Turton is the kind of person who gets things done. He enrolled three of his people and himself in a class offered by one of the FOA schools in Atlanta. They all learned how to install, splice, terminate, test and troubleshoot fiber optics.
It took almost a year to design the network, buy components and do the initial installation before the first customer was connected—Turton himself. Another year into the project, he has hundreds of subscribers and two counties trying to get him to expand to their areas. He financed it all out of pocket.
The second group we worked with was the electrical co-op in the small town of Anza, Calif. We helped the co-op create a proposal for a combination FTTH and smart-grid system and sell it to its board of directors. We also made several trips to train its personnel on the basics of fiber optics.
Meanwhile, general manager Kevin Short and his staff managed to get a rural broadband grant from the California Public Utilities Commission to cover 60 percent of the cost. The co-op has been installing fiber for about a year now and has hundreds of homes (ranches, really) connected.
These are just two of the many DIY FTTH projects the FOA has had contact with. I use Turton’s Southern Fiberworx and Connect Anza as examples of what can be done if you have a realistic viewpoint, commitment, resources and knowledge.
I’ll bet quite a few readers know of similar opportunities with small towns, real estate developers, small utilities, etc. If you do, assure them that you can “do it yourself.” If you are a fiber contractor, it may be an excellent business opportunity.