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South Bend’s Dark Fiber Non-Profit

Cassandra Graber mural titled “Inno-Vision” is her interpretation of
South Bend, Indiana innovation, including the region’s fiber optics
and a hydroelectric turbine under Seitz Park. Source: ChoiceLight.

Sitting at the crossroads of the Midwest, South Bend, Indiana, has been a major manufacturing and logistics hub due to its location along railroads and the interstates. Twenty years ago, community leaders, local businesses, and The University of Notre Dame found themselves bandwidth starved, without access to the high-speed fiber necessary for the continued operation and growth of themselves and the surrounding community. The solution was unique, an organization dedicated to deploying dark fiber infrastructure – just dark fiber, not a traditional internet service provider — for the economic benefit of the region. 

“ChoiceLight was formed in the early 2000s, with the construction of the network beginning in 2006,” said Regina Emberton, CEO, ChoiceLight, Inc. “There was no on-ramp to the internet, no one in our community was able to connect to it, no one was building out the market to provide that. Community, economic development, and business leaders got together and created a non-profit. The founding capital contributors each put in a significant amount of money to cover the cost of the initial build of the dark fiber and in exchange got 10 years of dark fiber access.”

Founding capital contributors in ChoiceLight included the University of Notre Dame, Everwise (formerly Teachers Credit Union), Beacon Health System, St. Joseph Health System, Robert Bosch Corp., Madison Center, and South Bend Medical Foundation. In addition, ChoiceLight negotiated reciprocal agreements for conduit access in South Bend, Mishawaka, and St. Joseph County in exchange for access to dedicated fiber for each municipality’s exclusive use. 

ChoiceLight paid for the cost of installing the fiber, expanding the network, and building the redundant ring structure. As a non-profit, it was limited to serving government agencies and tax-supported schools. A for-profit subsidiary, CLight, was created to provide services to commercial users, including banks, medical facilities, and other commercial and business subscribers. Dividends from CLight operations are channeled back into ChoiceLight to cover costs and enable it to expand operations over time.

“It started out as a small group in South Bend to service those initial users,” said Emberton. “Now ChoiceLight serves a three-county area, about a half million people in the region. Ten years into the process, we extended the network south to Marshall County. A couple of years ago, we built west to New Carlisle where a lot of economic development growth is happening. The attractiveness of that area is the land, the workforce, but also that there’s fiber available. They just announced a new EV battery plant.”

Today, ChoiceLight has a little over 300 dark fiber end users, many served through the numerous internet service providers in the region that use its services. Having these partners enables ChoiceLight to provide a turn-key solution beyond dark fiber when organizations require it.

“All of the subscription revenue is reinvested in the nonprofit organization,” said Emberton. “We work with the counties and cities and economic development professionals to identify areas of growth in the region and try to ensure that we’re proactive in extending the network. Another aspect of our mission is to support our partners in their efforts to expand services to underserved residential areas. Partnering to support our schools has been most interesting. Last year, we partnered with Notre Dame, enFocus, and the South Bend Community School Corporation, extending our fiber by several miles to three different sites in support of a private LTE network that enables Wi-Fi to reach students in their homes.”