FairlawnGig challenges AT&T, Frontier hold with 1 Gbps plans

two utility workers setting up a fiber cabinet on a sidewalk
A Fairlawn, Ohio-based municipal broadband provider seeks to expand the availability of broadband service to local residents and businesses.

FairlawnGig, a Fairlawn, Ohio-based municipal broadband provider, plans to deliver 1 Gbps services to local residents and business customers in a market underserved by incumbent telcos AT&T and Frontier.

The network is being built in tandem with Fairlawn’s partner, Fujitsu Network Communications, which served as the design-build network integrator. Fujitsu is also operating and maintaining the network for the city. 

Like many secondary cities, overall broadband coverage in Fairlawn was at best spotty, or in many places, nonexistent.

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Ernie Staten, deputy director of public service for the city of Fairlawn, told FierceTelecom that prior to starting plans to build out its own network, the city ranked near dead last in terms of broadband availability.

Ohio’s status as the worst state for broadband availability declined even further when Kentucky announced plans for its KentuckyWired middle mile project last year. When KentuckyWired is completed next year, it will consist of over 4,800 km (3,000 miles) of fiber cable with multiple redundant loops.

“Other than what we’re trying to provide the broadband infrastructure in Ohio is very poor,” Staten said. “At the time that all of this was going on we were number 49 and Kentucky was number 50 on the worst areas for broadband capability, so not long after that Kentucky signed on to its middle mile project and dropped the state of Ohio down to the very bottom.”

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After getting responses from 10 companies from its FTTH and FTTB RFP, Fairlawn negotiated an agreement with Fujitsu Network Communications in which they would act as the design-build network integrator. Fujitsu is also operating and maintaining the network on behalf of the city.   

During the process, Fujitsu put together a game plan for Fairlawn that illustrated how to build, where it would be built, and the steps it would need to take. After Fairlawn and Fujitsu finalized the details of the contract last year, Fairlawn pursued financing.

Extra Mile has been appointed to handle the retail service sales and helping with wholesale sales. They will also conduct billing and back office operations.

The Fairlawn city council later approved the design and financing of the project via a bond through its port authority.

“The financing is probably a twist from what everyone else does with the idea that we were not going to strive to get the money to pay back the build,” Staten said. “We felt that the build was an essential utility and it was no different than building a road, a sewer or water line because we don’t assess for those items.”   

Upon completion, FairlawnGig’s fiber and wireless network will deliver from 1 Gbps up to 100 Gbps connectivity to established enterprises, and is expected to attract new generations of professionals to the city and Akron-Fairlawn-Bath Township Joint Economic Development District. 

AT&T, Frontier remain mum

What drove Fairlawn to develop its own broadband plan was a lack of activity by the traditional telcos, Frontier and AT&T.

Despite pleas from city officials to build out broadband into the edges of the city, AT&T and Frontier told Fairlawn that they had no immediate plans to extend broadband into cities like Fairlawn because they did not see a positive return. This is because most incumbent service providers will often make their investments in the middle of a community, leaving the edge parts with little or no broadband access service.

FairlawnGig fiber network
FairlawnGig fiber network

“We have Frontier on one side and AT&T on the other side, and the edge part of it really hurt us,” Staten said. “The investment is really not on the edge and is usually in the middle and when we met with them they had no problem telling us that they don’t see an investment in Fairlawn like what we were asking for.”

Interestingly, AT&T and Frontier have yet to protest or show any interest in FairlawnGig’s efforts, nor have they expressed interest in purchasing dark fiber facilities.

Although representatives from AT&T and Frontier initially attended the meetings FairlawnGig held, they have since stopped coming and have not provided additional feedback.

“We have not had an issue with the incumbents,” Staten said. “After meeting with them we were very clear that we would build this network with the ability for them to rent fiber from us because we want our residents and businesses to have other choices.”

Staten added that the likely reason they have not approached FairlawnGig is “because we don’t have fiber in the ground and we don’t have something to lease to them.”

An ambitious rollout schedule

Following the similar tack taken by Google Fiber and even Verizon’s Boston FiOS plans, FairlawnGig has divided the city into multiple target service areas.

Before Christmas, FairlawnGig plans to have four areas lit with the fiber service. Today, 68% of the residents in a 400-home area have signed up for FairlawnGig's service.

“I think this a big win for us,” Staten said. “It shows that there’s a need for it and we went the right course.”

FairlawnGig has set an ambitious deployment schedule for the residential side to install service to 20 homes a day.

“We have already started doing drops and the NID on the outside of the home and we have done the site surveys inside the homes,” Staten said. “Once it is turned up and tested, we can go in and start giving service.”

Out of the four areas FairlawnGig plans to serve, three are focused on businesses. Thus far, FairlawnGig has had a 27% take rate on business service even before it has installed any fiber.

“Once we have fiber, we’re going to get a huge uptake on it,” Staten said.

The service provider is targeting 800 businesses with a mix of GPON and Active Ethernet-based 1 Gbps and above fiber services. As a way to attract business customers, FairlawnGig will offer a free month of service.

“By us building the way we have and having Fujitsu do the leg work to make sure we’re putting in the top-notch build here in Fairlawn, I think we’ll be able to show we’re more reliable,” Staten said. “I think that’s the most important thing with a business.”

Although FairlawnGig’s service is only available today to a few select businesses, the budding service provider hopes to attract a broader set of customers looking for an alternative source.

Already, FairLawnGig has equipped Hilton and DoubleTree hotels, as well as a 100,000-square-foot office building on a 12-acre campus, with its fiber network capabilities.

Getting this network connection in place at the Hilton was important for FairLawnGig as Cleveland, Ohio, hosted the Republican National Convention this past summer.

“We knew that quite a few people from the RNC would end up going to the Hilton, and we wanted a way to show what this network could do,” Staten said. “Our plan was to get the Hilton lit up and there’s a hotel next to it lit up, and the week before the convention we were able to light up both areas.”

Staten added that this initial deployment “helped propel our business and residents here to engage in this project.”

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