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Where Did the Fiber Fever Go? The Case for Ultra High Speed Internet

Andrew Palms on U of M North Campus
Andrew Palms on U of M North Campus - Doug Coombe
Three years ago, the push to bring fiber internet to Ann Arbor through Google's fiber-to-the-premises project was all the rage around town. The grassroots A2 Fiber initiative had more than 17,000 followers on Facebook and thousands of views on YouTube. Then, in March of 2011, Kansas City was announced as the winner among 1,100 communities that applied. And the buzz just sort of stopped. 

Now, Google has installed or is installing fiber in Kansas City, Austin and Provo, Utah, and has targeted 34 new potential fiber sites including Atlanta, Charlotte, Portland and Phoenix. Where is Ann Arbor? Not on the list. Why not? 

Or, rather, perhaps it's best to begin with why Ann Arbor should want to be among the first cities in the US to have fiber optic internet piping directly into our neighborhoods. 

"People always ask what the application is going to be," says Andrew Palms, executive director of Communications Systems for University of Michigan's Information and Technology Services. "The answer is, it's really not that clear. That said, eventually, fiber is going to be inside everybody's home."

The technology, which brings internet connections that are 100 times faster than the average broadband speeds in homes, will inevitably change everything. We're just not super clear on how.

But then, five years ago, no one could imagine why they could need an unlimited data plan on their phone. Now, we're streaming so much video, audio and more from our phones, we need all the data we can get. Ten years ago, we would have scoffed at the idea of an iPad. Fifteen years ago, we couldn't conceive of why we'd pay extra to have Internet on our phones.

While individuals may have a hard time wrapping their minds around what they'll do with all of that capacity, U-M has plenty of ideas. The Transportation Research Institute, or UMTRI, is currently working on the next generation of intelligent automobile using a wireless network along Plymouth Rd. and Washtenaw Ave. With fiber, they could be tested anywhere a sensor was located throughout the city, and the cars could communicate data back to UMTRI without having to return to their facility. Multiply that by all of the technology research being done in Ann Arbor, and fiber could have a pretty huge impact. 

"Having a more open service like that frees up more potential for innovation," says Palms. "There is still a lot of interest in being a major research institution that has Fiber from our faculty and staff."

But Google isn't the only way for a city to get fiber. Verizon's FiOS fiber network is available in 18 cities. A number of cities have or are setting up their own fiber networks including Johnson City and Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Tennessee!)  And according to Palms, waiting around for Google might not have been the right strategy in the first place.

Apparently, Google originally proposed a fiber network model with the infrastructure to support multiple entities being involved, from installing the cabling to supplying the service to homes. What transpired was a more vertical system in which Google controls all of the layers of the network.

"The university and the city would prefer a model that allows a lot of varied use of a high speed network," Palms said. "If we had one party that was willing to make dark fiber, that is, not lit up, that would be very interesting to us."

It would be interesting to the university, because they'd like to lead the way on Ann Arbor's next push for a fiber network. 

The move wouldn't be unprecedented. UM offered dial-up to the city decades ago, before any providers were offering it, as well as DSL in the 1990s.

"Once there was competition, we pulled out of it," Palms said.

That's why, while excitement among the public has certainly waned, the university has continued to work with the city to pave the way for a future fiber network. 

Palms said though the city is supportive of the idea, nothing is imminent yet, but he's confident a pilot program will get off the ground. And with so many other cities getting fiber from Google, Verizon, or their own partnerships, there's no time to waste if Ann Arbor intends to stay ahead of... or even in-step with the innovation curve. 

What can the public can do to help encourage the process along as the university and city work out the details isn't extensive, but they can play a role. 

"If a pilot gets going, I would encourage people to be supportive of that pilot," Palms says. "We're also up for a new mayor, and 'Is fiber something you will prioritize?' is something you might want to ask the candidates about. "Certainly, the city is going to be a major factor in making it happen. 

"They can make it easy or make it difficult. And it's important to make it easier." 

Whether or not Ann Arbor residents can conceptualize today how fiber internet piping into their homes could change their lives tomorrow, it's clear that the sooner the city is equipped with the technology of the future, the better positioned we'll be to become among the first to find out. 

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.

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All photos by Doug Coombe
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