How a small town in Idaho and one smart guy built a fiber-optic model from the ground up

·3 min read
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Ammon, a town of roughly 16,000, shares its entire western border with Idaho Falls, a town of roughly 62,000. The two towns share a sibling rivalry that at worst leads to bouts of squabbling, but at best pushes both to excel.

And around 2008, Ammon started to worry it might be at a disadvantage. The dark fiber network then being built by Idaho Falls wouldn’t be available there. And Ammon doesn’t have a police department, much less a power company that it could use to bootstrap its network.

Idaho Falls had miles of power poles and underground conduit that made it easy to build the physical infrastructure of the network. Idaho Falls Power is also a big financial entity — its 2021 budget was around $86 million — so it had access to attractive financing options to build the network.

Ammon didn’t have any of these advantages, but it had one thing that Idaho Falls didn’t: a city staffer in the building department who, though he spent most of his time reviewing construction plans, had a background in information technology and a talent for finding innovative ways to solve problems.

Bruce Patterson said when he was tasked with figuring out a plan for Ammon’s fiber-optic system, the real problem was how a small town — a town whose annual budget today hovers around only $10 million — could stand up a network from scratch.

“It was a huge challenge,” Patterson said. “Idaho Falls Power had fiber to the various substations. Ammon had none — no fiber.”

Ammon’s key financial innovation was to use a legal structure called a local improvement district to fund fiber construction. The way it works is: 1) Individual households within a neighborhood are allowed to opt-in to receiving a fiber-optic connection. 2) The city floats a bond to cover the cost of building a fiber network to cover that neighborhood, which homeowners pay off in their internet bill over the next 15 years. 3) The homeowner then owns their fiber connection, and the public owns the broader fiber network.

“The reason why it’s successful here is both (Idaho Falls and Ammon) are doing it as an opt-in model,” Mayor Sean Coletti said. “Nobody is paying for it that doesn’t want it. I think that is a concept that even in the most conservative communities makes a lot of sense.”

Today, Ammon is working on building out fiber in the fifth of seven local improvement districts, where between 73% and 53% of residents have opted to join the network.

And in Ammon, the open-access model is working so well that it’s drawn significant national acclaim. The average Ammon fiber customer pays less than $30 per month for a 1-gigabit connection. (An additional fee goes to amortize the cost of building their portion of the network — but this is more like a mortgage payment than rent. Once it’s complete, the homeowner owns their fiber connection the way they own their sewer connection.)

In 2019, Fast Company called Ammon’s network “the best fiber-optic network in America.” Researchers at Harvard devoted a 2017 case study to the network.

Patterson left the city of Ammon after 17 years in 2021. He joined a company called EntryPoint Networks, and hit the road preaching the open access gospel. And he has found willing converts, as the Ammon Model is taken up far beyond the borders of Idaho.

Tomorrow: Patterson promotes the open-access model around the country, most notably in Detroit, which is close to breaking ground on a $10 million fiber-optic infrastructure project explicitly modeled on tiny Ammon’s network.

Bryan Clark is an Idaho Statesman opinion writer based in eastern Idaho.

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