AP NEWS

EDITORIAL: For Gateway Cities, a Path to Modern Fiber Optics

March 28, 2019

It seems old mill cities can attract a major fiber optic network provider after all. After failing on several occasions to entice Verizon into providing its Fios Internet, phone and TV service, Lowell has been stuck with cable giant Comcast/Xfinity as the only option for that “triple play.”

Verizon wasn’t interested in investing the money required to install its fiber optic network in high-density communities on the lower economic ladder, which includes every Gateway City in this state.

However, that reliance on cable could end if the Lowell City Council gives city administrators the OK to enter into an agreement with SiFi Networks America, an international fiber optic network developer.

Chief Financial Officer Conor Baldwin told councilors Tuesday night the company submitted a formal proposal to privately fund, design, build, operate and maintain a new fiber optic network in the city.

In short, it would create an Internet service option for residents seeking an alternative to Comcast.

This potential game-changing development comes from a request for proposals initiated by Councilor Karen Cirillo’s motion in January to explore building a municipal broadband network.

Lowell couldn’t take on such a costly project on its own, so it sought an outside concern to develop it instead. While several companies expressed interest, only SiFi submitted a proposal.

City officials believe the competition this state-of-the-art optic network would provide by new internet providers could drive down cable rates for similar services.

SiFi is not an internet provider. It makes money by selling Internet service providers access its network in order to make their products available to potential customers.

Also, this proposed broadband network only offers Internet services; it can’t be used as vehicle for other cable TV options.

But that doesn’t preclude a Fios from utilizing SiFi’s fiber optic network to deliver its services.

Also, consumers continue to unplug their cable boxes in favor of video streaming services, such as DirecTV Now, Sling TV and YouTube TV -- designed to replace the typical cable TV package.

In addition to residents, this SiFi network would feed higher speed Internet service throughout the municipal and public-safety sector, as well as Lowell General Hospital.

Lowell wouldn’t be SiFi Networks America’s first municipal customer in Massachusetts. The city of Salem, which Fios also spurned, has signed an agreement with the company, as has East Hartford, Conn. Portland, Maine, is also exploring this option.

Installing this network would be a major undertaking, likely taking two years or more to complete. SiFi intends to use a process called “microtrenching” to install the network, an underground process CFO Baldwin described as the “least invasive construction technique currently available.”

As encouraging as this project sounds, the devilish details remain. That’s why the SiFi proposal has been sent to the City Council Technologies and Utilities Subcommittee for discussion. Councilors also would likely hear a presentation from the company before making a decision.

If this SiFi proposal does pass muster, it could provide a fiber optic connectivity blueprint for all Gateway Cities to replicate.