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Ammon’s residents can opt in and out of the city’s network and switch between independent ISPs instantly—ending cable monopolies.
Hitt Road separates the largest city in eastern Idaho, Idaho Falls, from a city one-fifth its size, Ammon , and yet the latter’s side is the growth side—because it’s also the fiber side.
While not the first city to open its municipal fiber network to multiple competitors, Ammon has pioneered allowing subscribers to switch between internet service providers with ease via an online marketplace.
The easily replicable model saves the city money and supplanted cable monopolies with broadband competition, now that households and businesses can instantly change ISPs when dissatisfied with their connection.
“I don’t expect to see 100,000 people move to Ammon tomorrow, but if other cities and companies build this kind of network, we could see a new generation of apps,” Chris Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance ’s Community Broadband Networks initiative, told Route Fifty in an interview.
That means applications like Ammon’s active-shooter system, which can detect gunshots within a few feet of where they were fired inside schools and trigger a live camera feed to emergency dispatch in three seconds.
All that is done over the municipal fiber network, in response to growing national concern about mass shootings.
“The current method, the way the responders respond to that, is simply to bring everybody they can bring and send them in there as quickly as possible because the facts show that the longer the event runs, the more casualties there are,” said Bruce Patterson, the city’s technology director, in this video . “We thought, what if we can bring information to the situation? What if, instead of going in blind, you actually knew what the shooter looked like, or how many there were, or what weapon he had, or where he was in the building?”
Not only did Ammon’s app win the National Institute of Justice Ultra-High Speed Apps Challenge in 2015, but it’s drawn more attention to their approach to fiber in a conservative area of the nation typically wary of big government.
“We were left in the situation of realizing early on that we would be the last served and that we would have a single provider,” Mayor Dana Kirkham said in the video. “There wouldn’t be any choice for our citizens.”
Providers guaranteed connectivity but little else, so the city partnered with the Albion Telephone Company and approached Water Department sites about laying the fiber infrastructure for ultra-fast, constant Internet.
The Water Department agreed to pay for the infrastructure but not the monthly fees, so Ammon was tasked with re-selling the excess capacity to the community to cover operation costs.
Businesses and the rest of the private sector jumped at the opportunity, the city breaking even to start and now in the black; Ammon has no debt.
Using its existing budget, rather than relying on tax increases, the city has laid fiber strategically—extending it to parks, buildings, utilities, the Fire Department , and schools. The cheapest path doesn’t always make the most sense, Patterson said, so the city is mindful about what it wants to connect to in the future
Local improvement districts made up of around 400 residents allow residents to opt into the network for $3,000 upfront or $20 a month for 20 years. The more homes in a neighborhood that opt in, the cheaper the cost per household.
Incremental investments have added up during the last five to seven years, allowing Ammon’s network to slowly spread.
“Smaller towns tend to be very innovative because—when you have personal relationships between Bruce and the City Council, residents and their elected officials—it’s easier to think outside the box,” Mitchell said.
Residents pay independent companies like Silver Star Communications and Fybercom to deliver Internet over the municipal network. By virtualizing services on the network, using software to find networking, Ammon empowers customers.
At least 20 million Americans lack access to fast Internet at any price, and 70 to 80 percent have only one provider option meeting Federal Communications Commission standards, said Susan Crawford , a Harvard Law School professor who has advised the White House on tech policy, in the video.
“There is no reason that Republicans and Democrats should have any difference of opinion about the importance of fiber and its availability at a low price to everybody in the country,” she said.
Too many officials seeking re-election try to make change immediately, Mitchell said, which is why Ammon having a long-term vision is so integral to its success.
The city’s model has led to a network app developers can build off of.
“The goal here is to build the next network, giving people real choice,” Mitchell said. "Google Fiber is terrific, a lot of the municipal networks are terrific, but this is a network really trying to unleash innovation.”
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Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.