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A Tale of Two Cities: The Urban Fiber Struggle

Ft. Worth, TX, and Newark, N.J., appear to have little in common with each other beyond being lumped together with larger neighbors Dallas and New York City, with different climates, geographics, demographics, and histories. However, the two share a need for more fiber to close the digital divide and provide favorable conditions for economic growth. 

Much has been said about the rural digital divide being a problem of physical distance and higher installation cost leading to limited access. Less has focused on urban challenges of legacy infrastructure and the disruptive necessity and expense digging up city streets and sidewalks to replace limited and decaying copper-based networks with modern, resilient, and more power-efficient technology. 

Fiber provides urban governments and communities with substantial economic benefits. Municipal ownership of fiber enables city departments to communicate on their own secure networks, reducing the need for external services and their ever-increasing expenses. Available dark fiber can be leased to third parties, providing the city with monthly long-term revenue and used as an incentive to extend services to unserved areas. Finally, the availability of fiber and high-speed broadband services for business is a necessity for attracting and retaining businesses. 

Securing funding for urban broadband projects has proven to be a challenge for cities, despite an established need to reach “digital deserts,” areas that have not been modernized by incumbent vendors due to a calculated lack of return on capital investment. This has led municipalities to establish public-private partnerships for building broadband networks into unserved and underserved areas that have been historically bypassed in favor of wealthier zip codes. 

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Any Lone Star State origin story usually starts with cowboys and cattle, but few segue into the importance of networks for 21st Century commerce. 

“Ft. Worth was a border town right where the West began,” said City of Ft. Worth Chief Technology Officer Kevin Gunn. “We like to think of cowboys as the original entrepreneurs and they thrived because they were entrepreneurial. We had lots of head of cattle that were free for the taking down in the Rio Valley. They could bring them up here to Fort Worth and could sell them for $4 a head. If they could get all the way to Chicago, they could sell them for about $40 a head. They did that by creating a network way back in the 1890s, the Chisholm Trail, that ran all the way from South Texas up to Abeline and then on by rail to Chicago.” 

Ft. Worth CTO Kevin Gunn says the city’s fiber deal locks in
operational costs while enabling unlimited bandwidth growth.
Source: City of Ft. Worth.

Over time, the Chisholm Trail was replaced by a network of railroads, carrying not only cattle but other goods. Ft. Worth became a transportation nexus moving goods and people across the country as it grew. In the 1950’s, the Interstate Highway System supplemented the railroads, with three major thruways merging in the steadily growing city and giving an additional boost to the economy.

“We all know that the network of the future is the internet,” said Gunn. “We want to ensure Ft. Worth is well connected to that network, where commerce is performed and get all the other benefits that flow from that network. That’s why we’re interested in broadband and what the infrastructure for broadband is in our community. We saw some gaps or challenges there out of the pandemic, we saw segments of our community were not well connected or not connected at all to the internet infrastructure.”

The City of Ft. Worth defines four pillars for digital equity, including network access; device access; the knowledge, skills, and support for using the technology; and affordability. “Even if we have the first three in place, if it’s not affordable, we’re still going to have people left out,” said Gunn. “We also see economic development aspects to having good internet infrastructure in our community. There are lots of relatively inexpensive parcels of land here. We’ve got good electric power. We want to make sure we’ve got world-class broadband infrastructure so we can attract internet-focused and internet-based businesses here in Ft. Worth.”

Gunn cited North Dallas’ Metroplex area with its numerous data centers as a business development model that Ft. Worth would love to replicate, except for the fact that the nearest Tier 1 provider is 40 miles east of the city because there’s no available fiber to service the combination of low-cost real estate and available power. “We want to have peering and [Internet Exchange Point] cross-connect opportunities here in Ft. Worth so businesses don’t have to worry about constructing a path 40 miles to get Tier 1,” Gunn said.

Ft. Worth also plans to use new fiber in its own operations by leveraging its secure networking properties for city IT operations and incorporating smart city technologies across town to gather video and traffic information, weather conditions, and storm water and wastewater infrastructure performance.

When looking at the combination of needs for digital equity, economic development, and city government use, Ft. Worth decided to partner with a third-party broadband service provider to build its network with plenty of extra capacity. The central core of the network would enable the provider to use its private dollars to connect passed neighborhoods with PON to provide fiber to the home and for commercial customers. 

“We just awarded a contract to Sprocket Networks, an internet service provider based in Dallas who wants to expand into Ft. Worth, to construct it,” stated Gunn. “They came out as the best value for the city in construction costs and in digital navigation and making sure we address the equity and equity concerns we have in the community. It’s about 300 miles of cable, 192 strands. We have indefeasible right of use for 36 strands for our governmental use. That leaves the remainder [of the middle mile capacity available] for partnering with internet service providers in our community.”

Ft. Worth’s network will connect all the 224 facilities around the city, including fire stations, police substations, government storefronts, community centers, libraries, and fleet maintenance locations. Once connected, the city will switch off its current set of leased lines and the pay-as-you-go model with its existing telecommunications providers, saving considerable operational expenses in the years to come.

“Our bandwidth needs grow at about 5% per year,” said Gunn. “Our bill for those services grows along with it. By provisioning our own WAN service and using our unlit fiber, our bandwidth growth is unlimited and locks in our operating costs at today’s levels.”

The $65 million project is being funded through $4.5 million in ARPA funding and $3 million from the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) transportation improvement plan in up front capital, and the remainder paid out as annual installments to Sprocket over a 34-year term. “Our annual payments are going to be the same as our current payments to other service providers, so we’re locking in our recurring operational costs for the network. It’s a great way to leverage our purchasing power, but not to have a lot of upfront capital.”

There are 376,000 households in the Ft. Worth corporate limits with around 76,000, over 20%, that don’t have access to reliable or high-quality internet service. Other proposals didn’t include the dark fiber which the city wanted to reduce long-term operational costs. Construction of the 300-mile network is expected to take place over three years, but that will only be the beginning for the Ft. Worth/Sprocket Networks partnership. Gunn anticipates funding opportunities for BEAD monies to be available around January 2025 or later, depending on how the NTIA approval process goes. 

“We intend to partner with Sprocket to apply for that funding when it becomes available,” said Gunn. “That will definitely help build our PON networks into neighborhoods, particularly MDUs, multi-dwelling units. We find there are quite a number of MDUs with 100/100 Mbps at an addressable location, but you may have 300 units at that location. If 300 of those units have to share 100/100, that’s not served.”

Ft. Worth hopes to tap into Texas’ newly created $1.5 billion Broadband Infrastructure Fund to expand coverage to its unserved and underserved communities, with Gunn saying he’s “cautiously optimistic” that there’s a lot of state and federal funding available to address connectivity shortfalls. “We still have urban areas that don’t have good internet infrastructure,” said Gunn. They have ADSL for connectivity and that’s not adequate to meet the needs of remote education, remote working, and remote services, especially when Mom and Dad and kids and grandparents are trying to do that all at the same time.” 

Brick City, Scarce Glass

Settled in 1666, Newark, N.J., is one of the oldest cities in the United States and the largest city in New Jersey with over 311,000 residents. Nicknamed “Brick City,” Wikipedia paints a vibrant picture of Newark, citing its many white-collar jobs in insurance, finance, health care, and technology. Firms calling the city home include Audible, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Prudential, Mars Wrigley, WebMD, and Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG). 

However, the fiber broadband fueling the business sector’s successes is out of reach for many of the people who live there, with access and affordability major issues. About half of Newark’s 110,000 households are eligible for the $30/month ACP discount, while nearly one in five Newark households do not have an internet subscription, according to 2021 U.S. Census data, and 10% of Newark families lack a computer. 

The city of Newark is using multiple methods to promote ACP to its residents, including mailings and pop-up tables at community events.
Source: Invest Newark/Tehsuan Glover.

“During COVID, it became apparent that there were a number of households that did not have broadband, some didn’t have computers,” said Marcus Randolph, President and CEO, Invest Newark. “Asking people, particularly young people who were trying to learn remotely to do something off their parent’s phone or take a school-issued laptop to some place where they could access free Wi-Fi just wasn’t acceptable to our Mayor the Honorable Ras J. Baraka. He made a mandate to make sure that we make available to people an affordable and reliable internet option. Then, timely enough, here comes the ACP program that can go hand in hand with our efforts to expand fiber and make it available to residents here in the city.”

Invest Newark CEO Marcus Randolph is open to partnering with
third-parties to close the digital divide by deploying fiber into
more of the city’s wards. Source: Invest Newark.

To promote ACP enrollment, Invest Newark received a grant of $400,000 from the Federal Communications Commission in 2023. With outreach in progress, nearly 30% of the city is enrolled, with over 10,000 households added last year. The city’s goal is to increase adoption up to 70% of eligible households by June 2024 and expects it will surpass that number. To address the device gap, Invest Newark has had discussions with “a few organizations” who have reached out to provide funding or help identify gently used equipment that can be recycled into a second life with those that need it.

While Newark works on affordability, it is also wrestling with improving and extending physical access. “We certainly do want fiber everywhere,” said Randolph. “We spent the last two years maintaining what we have [in our city network], we’re currently addressing some deferred maintenance. We’re trying to work out a plan to extend our fiber throughout the city so it’s more resilient and reliable.”

The City of Newark currently has a network of 26 miles of fiber it owns and wants to expand that into a metro-area ring by adding another 22 miles that would provide middle-mile infrastructure for expanding access throughout the city’s five wards, including residential homes and MDUs. Randolph said Newark had applied for $22 million in NTIA middle-mile funding last year but, like most applicants, was turned down.

Newark is working on other funding solutions to build its metro ring, with a total expected cost of $30 million. “This is not an inexpensive endeavor,” stated Randolph, noting the expense and challenges of building in the city. “We do need to look at ways that we can cover that. It might require some conversations with philanthropic organizations that might want to take on a part of this. Obviously, the goal is to have a ring around the city, but if we can stretch what we have today further into more wards, we’d consider it a win.”

While there are incumbents providing high-speed broadband within the city limits, they do not offer service to all residences. “We recognize the bigger players are not going anywhere,” said Randolph. “But we want to be able to provide options to folks who either A) Live in a place where the bigger players are not currently or B) We want a more affordable, reliable service for them. Ultimately, we want to make sure that the next time there’s some catastrophe that we find ourselves all having to distance from one another that no one is so distanced by the fact that they don’t even have broadband at home.”

Newark has leveraged ARPA funding to catch up on its deferred maintenance and as well as extend fiber coverage to all its recreational centers and some senior centers. It is planning to get fiber and Wi-Fi into all its public housing buildings, with its first trials taking place with the Newark Housing Authority. “We’ve done some installations and it’s going quite well,” said Randolph. “We’ve learned a couple of lessons from the first few buildings and hopefully we can just rinse and repeat and get fiber and good service to all the public housing buildings in the city.” 

Future fiber expansion will require more investment with either public or private funding. Newark is open to working with the private sector to make fiber happen. “Part of our approach to doing this residential expansion is to create a free and open access network,” said Randolph. “We’ve had some firms express interest, but we’ll figure this out, we’ll get this fiber spread out throughout the city.’”