February 1, 2016
A pilot project in the City of Holland, Michigan is now delivering gigabit speed Internet service to pilot testers in three commercial buildings via a dark fiber network the city built more than two decades ago. The project, led by the Holland Board of Public Works (HBPW), is the first phase in an effort to develop a municipally owned and operated fiber network in this city of about 33,500 people situated on the shores of Lake Michigan.
David Morrison, the president of a software company in Holland and a member of a local public interest group called Holland Fiber, recognizes the growing need businesses have for extremely fast and reliable broadband access:
“Our whole business is online,” he told the Holland Sentinel newspaper. “We’re working with clients all over the world and we want to be able to work as quickly as possible.”
Morrison’s company is also one the pilot testers for the service. After the testing program began in January, Morrison Tweeted out a screen grab showing his Internet speeds as a pilot tester: 837.68 mbps for downloads, 495.53 mbps for uploads, and a ping rate of 12 milliseconds. That’s faster than 99% of US-based connections.
Toward a Municipal Network?
Pilot testing is set to last for three months and will allow Holland’s Board of Public Works (BPW) to test out different network technologies and solicit feedback from the various pilot testers. All of the pilot testers -- a group of several businesses that occupy the three buildings -- are getting free fiber Internet service during the three month pilot phase.
The BPW plans to apply their findings from pilot testing towards a business plan aimed at creating a municipal network that they hope can reach BPW’s entire service area. Completing the business plan will then allow the city to determine possible prices for the service. They will also use the business plan in support of their application to the State of Michigan to become an authorized Internet Service Provider. BPW officials expect state regulators to respond to their application by the fall of 2016.
History of Holland’s Fiber Network
Holland first installed a 17 mile, 48-count fiber optic ring in the city in 1992. It successfully facilitated a “smarter” power grid for the city, improving the reliability of HBPW’s various electrical facilities and equipment. And in 2003, the city extended the fiber network to most of the school facilities in the local school districts.
Since the mid-1990s, the BPW has also provided limited wholesale Internet services mostly to a small number of businesses that have especially high capacity Internet needs. After expansion and extension of the network over the years, Holland now has 76 backbone miles of fiber, more than 150 total route miles, and fiber counts of up to 288 strands.
A Tale of Too Many Cities: Disenchantment with Available Options
But despite all of this development and the potential this network holds as an Internet service infrastructure for the city, for most citizens and businesses in Holland today there’s no such thing as affordable, reliable, and superfast Internet access. Residential customers currently have the option of purchasing Internet service from any one of six private ISPs while business customers have three options: service from one of the private ISPs, a private network option, or a dark fiber option. But while the current published costs of this service to be competitive, Daniel Morrison told me in an email that these rates do not reflect the actual prices for service after connection fees and other charges:
“Our local Chamber of Commerce (I’m on the board) just finished a 3 year contract with one of these ISPs,” he said. “They were paying $655/month for 10 Mbps. That’s insane! (and their new 1 year contract isn’t much better).... I’ve been trying to scream from the rooftops that these prices don’t work for normal people, but most people don’t understand.”
He also said that in 2012, one of the city’s private Internet service providers quoted his company a similar rate for a committed 10 mbps connection, leading him to eventually settle for a cheaper and faster connection from AT&T. Morrison added that he doesn’t know of any residents in Holland who subscribe to residential service from one of the city’s private ISPs.
Envisioning a Better Future
Holland was one of the many cities across the country who tried unsuccessfully in 2010 to get Google Fiber to save the day. After that disappointment, BPW released a “Broadband Strategic Plan” in 2011 where they laid out their objectives for providing improved Internet service in Holland. That plan, which resulted in a recommendation to create a municipal fiber to the home network with costs estimated at $58 million, was never voted on in the Holland City Council.
This new pilot project is an important step in the journey toward the goal of developing an all fiber municipal network in Holland. With the existing infrastructure already in place, city officials and influential citizens can together assert local authority over the development of a vital 21st century utility that will benefit the businesses, government services, and residents in this community for years to come.