Taxpayer-Funded Fiber Lines Way Under Capacity

Joshua Keaton works at home. He would love faster Internet to deliver video presentations.

“Unless I have a big pipe through which I can do all that, it presents a great challenge for me to work from home,” said Keaton.

The fastest way to deliver Internet is through fiber optic lines. But Rochester’s two major Internet service providers are not heavily invested in fiber. Time Warner primarily uses cable lines and Frontier primarily uses phone lines.

A small start-up company. Greenlight Networks, is trying to bring fiber lines to homes. The company leases fiber lines owned by private companies, such as Fibertech. Greenlight can only set up where there is access to affordable fiber. That can be difficult.

“The biggest complaint we have now is we’re not there fast enough and we’re not in people’s neighborhoods where they want us,” said Mark Murphy, President of Greenlight Networks. “That’s the number one problem we’re trying to solve.”

It turns out, Monroe County owns a fiber-optic network spanning 367 miles. The county is not done with construction. The lines were built over the past decade through two intiatives. The first lays down fiber when sewer lines are repaired, built or maintained. The second laid down fiber as part of a security system contract for emergency communications.

Only county facilities and agencies use the fiber network. Those entities only use 18 percent of the network’s capacity. 

It didn’t cost much more money to lay down the bigger fiber lines in the sewer system, because the most expensive part of installing fiber is the digging. While an exact cost of the fiber network wasn’t available, the county said it’s fair to say it cost millions of dollars.

The county deliberately has been laying down excess fiber capacity, thinking one day there could be a public benefit. 

That day may have arrived.

In November, County Executive Maggie Brooks asked for a report to be delivered to the legislature by the end of 2015 detailing how the network could be used for public benefit. 

In her State of the City speech last week, Mayor Lovely Warren said she is forming a partnership with Brooks to investigate using the fiber lines for economic development.

“It’s about utilizing what’s underground to bring jobs to street level and that’s what we’re looking to do,” said Warren.

The county and city emphasize the partnership is in the early stages. The county could decide to keep the lines only for government agencies.

It’s also possible private companies could one day be allowed to access the lines for business or residential service, potentially driving down Internet costs. Taxpayers would also get a benefit in the form of revenue.

“We would certainly take a look and see what was available and if it made sense for us we’d leverage it,” said Murphy. 

The faster lines could be a selling point to market the area. 

“I didn’t realize we had so much excess capacity in our broadband here,” said Keaton. “I think if the public knew about it, if the business community knew about it, that we’d see a lot more growth happen because of it.”

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