The city of Powell is investigating the idea of adding fiber optics in the community, and city leaders are working to decide what the scope of that project would be -- or if it will happen at all.
Optical fiber lines -- known frequently as fiber optics or simply fiber -- offer internet connectivity of up to 1 gigabit per second, or 1,000 megabits per second. In comparison, internet-service providers often offer packages of 10, 20 or 50 megabits per second in residential areas and up to 100 megabits per second for business customers.
How should Powell address adding fiber optics? Before you vote, check out the story here:https://t.co/kAErcXh52v#Powell— ThisWeekNEWS (@ThisWeekNews)December 4, 2018
By adding fiber lines, Powell could meet a number of goals: The city could connect itself to local networks, such as the one set up in Delaware County; attract businesses that require higher rates of connectivity; and turn the fiber into a utility it offers the community, which would allow it to recoup costs of its establishment.
But first, the city would need to decide what level of investment to make in the technology, as well as how leaders would want to use it.
Powell City Councilman Brian Lorenz has been working with the city's economic-development team for about a year on the topic of fiber.
Although Lorenz isn't ready to detail many plans or speak beyond hypotheticals at this point, he said the topic of fiber is an exciting one.
For Lorenz, interest in fiber was sparked by comments he heard from residents.
"Holistically speaking, this is something that our residents constantly comment (about) on social media," he said. "We're kind of landlocked here in terms of providers. ... And being responsive to our residents' needs is something we really need to raise our game on."
Business windfalls often are the main point of fiber addition, but Lorenz said he didn't see economic-development issues as the main driving point behind the fiber. Instead, he said, Powell residents represent the perfect target market for residential fiber users.
"Especially if you're a person that works out of their home -- which a great deal of our residents do -- having that high-speed connection to upload and download and move documents (will) increase your productivity from your home or increase your entertainment (capabilities)," he said. "That's an inherent benefit.
"We're living in a society which is, 'I need info now and fast,' and that's how the world is. The more we can help accommodate that, it will help bolster our economy locally."
Fiber lines for both private and public consumption already exist in Delaware County, and Lorenz said Powell could use those lines as a case study for its own plans.
Steve Lewis, Delaware County's information technology director, said the county has an agreement with Delaware-based Consolidated Electric Cooperative to use 12 -- out of more than 100 -- of the company's fiber strands.
He said lines run through the county from multiple sources, including Consolidated, and are especially prevalent along the U.S. Route 23 corridor, along Sawmill Parkway, near U.S. Route 36 and state Route 37 and near "many of the major thoroughfares" across the county.
Meanwhile, Consolidated and other companies have their own fiber infrastructure that connects to local data centers.
Bob Lamb, Delaware County's economic-development director, said the availability of those lines has been crucial to attracting businesses.
"Companies are not locating in areas that they cannot secure fiber connection to today," he said. "I would say it's as critical as road, sewer or water. It's just another utility you're expected to deliver to a site."
Lewis and Lamb work closely with entities using fiber connections, but do so in very different ways.
According to Lewis, all fiber lines under his control are used by public entities. He said he doesn't even consider the idea of allowing private businesses access, and he sees it as a way that the county can support local government entities.
"We're able to allow other public agencies -- taxpayer-funded agencies -- to utilize that fiber because of our agreement with Consolidated," he said, noting it's his job to "reach out" to those agencies.
"It's all about saving taxpayer dollars. We do not offer that fiber or use of that fiber to any private entities. From my perspective, it's very unrelated to economic development, for my purposes."
Lamb, on the other hand, sees fiber as a vital addition to a community in both business and residential areas.
He said the ability for residents to be able to have fiber connections to their homes is crucial and will "serve as critical backbone of the wireless networks" in the future.
"5G networks will require fiber connections at micro and macro sites," he said. "That will facilitate the need to expand fiber connectivity throughout a lot of neighborhoods and other locations. That will just become an expectation for a high-quality-of-life residential area."
Tanya Kastelic-McCarthy, director of the Powell Chamber of Commerce, said she is not so sure.
Though she agreed fiber is "good to have in the plan," she said she doesn't think it's a make-or-break proposition to local businesses.
"As far as businesses go, I have not heard that the fact that we don't have (fiber) as a deterrent for bringing new business into town," she said. "I think it could only help, though. It's only going to help in the future."
With those ideas in mind, Lorenz and city staff members have to determine their goal for the fiber and what kind of scope they'll present to City Council.
Those conversations are still happening, and Lorenz said nothing is imminent.
"We're really at square one," he said. "It's going to take a while."
Fork in the road
First, the city would need to decide whether a potential fiber connection would be targeted toward economic development or the city's own use.
If the city plans to use it only for its own purposes, Lewis said, it easily and frugally could connect to one of the county's fiber strands.
Lewis said he has been in "very preliminary" talks with Powell about the topic. He said Powell would pay just $1,500 for a one-time internet-connection fee, then would pay, at most, $250 per month in server fees and $12 monthly per user.
That amount could decrease even more if Powell required little enough server space that it could share an existing server, in which case, Lewis said, the county wouldn't need to charge the $250 per month.
In that scenario, Lewis said, Powell could use Delaware's cloud "so they can take advantage of the infrastructure we have," though it might require another small fee to "connect them into our firewall."
With that agreement in place, Lewis said, the only remaining cost would be for Powell to work with Consolidated officials -- with whom Lorenz and assistant director of development Rocky Kambo said they both have been in contact -- to have the company connect Powell to fiber connections nearby.
Representatives from Consolidated declined to speak on the record for this story because an agreement with Powell is not in place.
If Powell chose that route, Lewis said, his public-entity-only rules still would apply. The city could use the new connectivity for its own purposes, but could not sell it, distribute it to private entities or provide it to residents, meaning it would not recoup costs.
A decision of scope
That leads to Powell's other option: installing fiber lines on its own and operating it like a utility.
With this strategy, Powell would require significantly more funding upfront and likely would pay a company to operate the network on a monthly basis.
In September, Kambo told the city's operations committee that preliminary estimates showed it could cost around $20 million to give fiber access to every home in the community, with monthly cost estimates varying widely from $2,000 to $300,000 per month.
Those costs likely are significantly higher than Powell's budget or its residents would allow, which is why Lorenz said he hopes to start small.
"We're looking at doing things in phases," he said.
Lorenz and Kambo both laid out three main options.
Fiber could be considered for city buildings only, which would likely cost relatively little, and would allow for high-speed wireless internet throughout some of downtown Powell.
Beyond that, the city could invest in fiber lines for a larger portion of its downtown, offering the service to businesses and residents in the area, along with city buildings.
Further beyond that scope, the city could put fiber in the full community or at least go well beyond its downtown, expanding over a number of years.
With all those options in mind, Lorenz said, it's difficult to weigh how much investment is the right amount.
"It's like, 'Does the city want to make an investment and go into it and become their own utility provider?' That would be great because then we could lease out some of the spaces in the fiber to other entities and pay for it that way," he said.
"If we're able to make a small investment, it will actually pay for itself. The amount of money the city pays for internet services, our small model would take care of itself in the long run. So we'd be trading off in a little bit."
Lorenz said he knows, however, that any extra costs would place a burden on the city. He said Powell has yet to reach the point of cost estimates -- "that's our next step" -- but expects any estimate to make at least some waves.
Voters rejected Powell's income-tax increase on the November ballot that would have paid for critical infrastructure work, such as road and sewer repairs. Lorenz said that makes him wonder if costs for projects seen as "wants" are permissible at all.
"With that levy failing, I'm not really sure what the tolerance is in the community for implementing that system," he said.
"At the same time, it would be irresponsible for us to not pay attention to it. Our residents want these types of things, and our surveys and comments that I've received, the feedback I get, is that this is something that's needed and wanted. So I just felt I wouldn't be doing my constituents a service if I wasn't investigating it for them."
Lorenz remains bullish on the idea, however.
Although he estimated that stretching fiber could take "five to seven years" for the entirety of Powell, he has higher hopes for the start of the process.
"If we can get the quote and we've got the funds allocated for a downtown project, I'd really like to see something in 2019," he said. "Then we run it and see how it goes for a while. Who knows, maybe the cost of the tech decreases. There are so many other moving parts ... we may end up looking at something different."
In the meantime, he said, he wants to see the process handled correctly and given a fair chance.
"It's a learning process," he said. "It's something that's really new, and I want to be cautious that we're doing the right things and acting appropriately while we're doing these investigations. We want it to be something that turns out to be a positive that we can perhaps build on."