A Tale of 2 Fiber Cities: Wilson, North Carolina & San Antonio, Texas

Small and large cities, rural and metro, can take the fiber journey and become gigabit cities.

In this tale of two fiber cities, Gov1 explores two very different paths to becoming a gigabit city.

The Rural Fiber Model

Large-scale manufacturing companies were once the economic bedrock of rural America, and today, rural communities coast to coast struggle to find ways to attract developers and grow industries that usher jobs and prosperity. Broadband just may be today's great equalizer, as officials in Wilson, North Carolina, the state's first gigabit city, might attest to.

One only has to look at what’s happening in Wilson to understand that fiber is an important component these days for economic vitality. But fiber alone is not a guarantee for economic success. It takes a community-wide effort like the one in Wilson to take advantage of what fiber offers. Wilson still has a way to go, but you can feel the excitement in the community -- and that is what makes any city a place where people want to live," wrote Doug Dawson after attending Wilson's Gig East forum late last year.

Wilson suffered with the decline of the tobacco industry, but municipal leaders say their publicly owned fiber network Greenlight is a catalyst for economic change, according to Dawson's blog.

Before deploying fiber in 2008, CenturyLink and AT&T declined to upgrade their networks. At that time only 13 percent of Wilson subscribed to a connection that is at least 4 Megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 1 Mbps upstream, according to a 2012 report authored and published by the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

Today, residents can get a 50 Mbps Internet package for $34.95, and prices go up from there. Schools, public safety services and other municipal services are all connected.

According to a 2012 snapshot of Greenlight service in Broadband Properties Magazine, the adoption rate in the city of 50,000 was 28 percent. In 2013 Wilson became a gig city, providing residents speeds up to 1 Gbps. Greenlight has since averaged 8 percent annual growth with the highest level of growth expected this year.

At one time, Greenlight provided fiber service to a neighboring community, but had to stop after a federal court ruled in favor of the states of North Carolina and Tennessee, upholding state laws that prevent municipal broadband providers from expanding outside their territories, according to ArsTechnica. In 2016, Greenlight also began providing 40 Mbps for $10 per month to public housing residents, according to the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR).

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice recently awarded Greenlight Community Broadband General Manager Will Aycock with its 2018 Local Internet Choice Local Champion Award, calling him a visionary, according to the Wilson Times. Aycock and Greenlight staff have provided support to officials in Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Goldsboro and other North Carolina municipalities to advise them "on the way forward" to local broadband.

A look at the Greenlight Facebook page and the city is awash with economic development announcements -- the city has recently been awarded grants for smart city apps and an innovation hub and has been ranked as a best city to start a business. According to Dawson, companies are refurbishing old downtown buildings and a former tobacco processing plant.

Those with home offices can take advantage of Greenlight's commercial speeds and find remote work opportunities.

The 30 square mile city contracted with Quanta Services to deploy fiber using boring techniques, and the project took 18 months to complete.

Big City Partners on Fiber

San Antonio, Texas, the seventh largest city in the United States, has invested in a government fiber network and is partnering with various providers to establish fiber optic and related agreements on its journey to become a gig city.

Neighborhoods in the city are connected one by one, and costs vary, for example:

  • Costs for AT&T Internet 1000 Mbps service, which can be provided to 230,000 homes, apartments and small businesses, start at $70 per month if bundled with another service, according to MySanAntonio.com.
  • Google Fiber1000 service in San Antonio neighborhoods where it is available, costs $55 per month, according to the provider.

A broadband expert from ILSR said San Antonio's path to fiber is good, "but not particularly revolutionary," as the city is facilitating private investment to middle and high-income neighborhoods.

However, deploying fiber in a city that houses 1.5 million people over 465 square miles may require more planning and more players. The city of San Antonio’s Transportation & Capital Improvements department collaborated with the Information and Technology Services department to assemble a Fiber Deployment Management Team that works closely with all private sector partners to manage the fiber deployments.

To reduce impacts to the city and its residents, the city performed a micro trench deployment pilot, laying 190 miles of fiber, in order to monitor utility impacts, community support and other factors, according to a document on the city's website. The city reported that laying fiber in a shallow trench avoided conflicts with water, electric and gas utilities and allowed work to be completed in one day.

San Anotnio's website describes what to expect with more than 100 crews still working on the fiber deployment. City officials use NextDoor to communicate with residents about upcoming work.

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