Editor’s Corner—Cincinnati goes its own way with fiber, targeting a multipurpose path

city of cincinnati
Cincinnati has hatched a plan to build out a multipurpose fiber network for smart city and future wholesale applications for businesses and other providers. (Image: Pixabay)
Sean Buckley

Cincinnati is going its own way to build a fiber network that will not only enable it to run smart city and internal applications, but also another way to monetize the network by selling potential wholesale access to other providers and businesses.

This project emerges at a time when communities are taking two paths to building smart cities: developing them on their own or partnering with a service provider. 

What I see in Cincinnati is a city looking to improve its own operations for its residents while making itself more attractive to businesses that are looking for a key destination. 

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Harry Black, city manager for Cincinnati, told FierceTelecom the fiber network is being built with a multipurpose mindset.

“This is another one of our smart city initiatives where we will lay just under four miles of fiber that will cover the circumference of our central business district,” Black said. “It will be a ring and we’ll do some cross connections so various blocks can tap into it in the future.”

The fiber network upgrade, which will take 15 months to install, will require a unique underground installation process. This process will require crews to dig a 30-inch-wide trench in the street to install ducts and cable. Crews will then dig about 200 feet at a time, moving to the next segment as one is completed.

But this is not just another city fiber experiment.

Cincinnati is using the fiber to replace the copper-based analog traffic service system while connecting to the city’s existing municipal fiber grid, which facilitates communications for all city departments including emergency services.

Additionally, the fiber network will support the video traffic coming from cameras that will collect information on traffic flows throughout the central business district.

“The primary driver is to upgrade our current analog traffic signaling system,” Black said. “This will allow us to transition it to a digital environment, which will help out with traffic management in the central business district because we’ll have greater control and visibility and make adjustments remotely to the traffic grid as situations change.”

Attracting businesses, enhancing the economy

Being a nearly ubiquitous bandwidth pipe, the fiber network could also be an attractive asset for new businesses. The city said in a memo that the fiber network is an opportunity to provide free Wi-Fi downtown and for the city to explore novel partnerships with businesses that would benefit from use of the fiber network.

Businesses could possibly use the fiber to power their own network needs as another option besides the two local provider incumbents—Cincinnati Bell and Charter. 

Other cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, which has a vibrant startup community, have attracted various startup incubators like The Company Lab following the debut of local utility EPB’s fiber network. 

It’s likely that Cincinnati could drive a similar path of business innovation. Already, organizations like The Brandery, a consumer marketing and branding accelerator, had been leveraging 1 Gbps connections from local incumbent telco Cincinnati Bell for its startup company members.

“It will make our Central Business District even more of a destination than what it is right now,” Black said. “More people will want to live in the CBD or expand their businesses that don’t exist now that may because of this fiber ring may say, it may be attractive enough for them to locate there.”

Future wholesale, open path

Besides modernizing Cincinnati’s traffic signal system, the project will include additional conduits vital to other “Smart Cincy” initiatives, and will be leased to other utilities or businesses.

The city will install two extra conduits, which will serve two purposes: bring a platform for smart cities and the opporunity to lease fiber to other businesses and local providers.

“We will be exploring how to monetize those two other pipes,” Black said, but did not provide any specific plans yet.

While it will take time to see how the city allocates the extra conduit, they are looking to monetize it. Becoming a wholesaler of potentially dark fiber or lit fiber solutions could be valuable to other providers while not directly competing with them.

Cincinnati Bell is not involved in this project, but the telco could tap into this fiber network to backhaul its own FTTH traffic or as an on-ramp for business customers in the area. Likewise, Charter could use the fiber for similar purposes.

Community networks overall have become a hot topic lately as the FCC’s  Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) highlighted the challenges and opportunities communities have in equipping their communities with network infrastructure. 

To fund the project, the Department of Transportation and Engineering (DOTE) secured $7.5 million in funding from a federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant including $4 million from the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments and a state grant from the Ohio Public Works Commission for $3.5 million.   

But what I keep coming back to is Cincinnati's can-do attitude.

“What makes this great is it’s something that we can do on our own,” Black said. “We don’t have to be dependent on someone else and we’ll get the direct benefit as a city government and other opportunities to partner with other entities to monetize the excess capacity that’s being built.”

To me this illustrates the grit and spirit one community has to take their own communications destiny in their own hands in a way that will provide multiple benefits.Sean | @FierceTelecom

Editor's Corners are opinion columns written by a member of the Fierce editorial team. They are edited for balance and accuracy.