• United States

City of Provo shuns incumbents, builds own public broadband net

Aug 17, 20043 mins

* Integrated "triple-play" services enabled on Provo net

When the incumbent local-exchange carriers and cable companies don’t step up to the plate fast enough with adequate broadband services, municipalities are taking matters into their own hands.

Such is the case in Provo, Utah. The Telecommunications Division of Provo City’s Energy Department has built its own citywide fiber-to-the-premises network, dubbed “iProvo,” over which it is running active Ethernet connections. From there, it is allowing retail service providers to offer multimegabit-speed integrated voice, data, and video services to Provo’s 33,000 homes and businesses. As the bandwidth wholesaler, Provo collects a transport fee from the retailer to fund the project.

Provo just signed on its first retailer, PhoneNet Communications, after a two-year network pilot with its infrastructure supplier, Ethernet switching equipment-maker World Wide Packets, which provides gear from home CPE to the backbone. Minerva Networks supplies the IP video equipment.

World Wide Packets gear offers the 50-millisecond restoral times of SONET equipment for high availability and quality-of-service capabilities, allowing different service guarantees for each subscriber.

Why build your own public services network?

“True broadband, to us, means symmetric speeds of 10M bit/sec and above,” explains Paul Venturella, telecommunications manager at Provo City Power. Traditional cable and DSL services, at best, offer 1.5M bit/sec downstream, but something inferior in the upstream direction.

“We saw incumbents Qwest and Comcast were not providing sufficient broadband services for the future of Provo,” says Venturella. “Bandwidth is as much a utility as electricity and is essential for working from home and for educational and business purposes.”

The iProvo network serves two masters, in a way: it delivers integrated communications services to the citizens of Provo while also serving the business needs of the municipality itself.

If there’s a short in an electric line that reaches a substation, for example, a signal is sent through the fiber network to other substations to open their breakers. This isolates the short so it won’t propagate citywide, notes Venturella.

The city also plans to soon use the network to read electric and water meters remotely, says Mary DeLaMare-Schaefer, a marketing and customer relations rep for Provo City Power.

“We’ll also be able to control traffic signals and use the network for public safety. If we get a call about an accident, we can switch on a camera and see how bad it is. We’ll know what personnel and emergency vehicles to dispatch,” notes Venturella.

From a consumer services point of view, the network extends the “triple play” concept beyond just purchasing voice, data and video services from a single provider.

“You can retrieve voice messages on your TV screen and forward them to your e-mail box,” notes Venturella. “You can IM from the TV with your friends. When your phone rings, caller ID pops up on the TV screen. We have sixth-grade graduation and college classes as video-on-demand services. The ‘triple play’ is much bigger than just three separate services on one line.”

The city sold bonds to finance the project and will repay them with revenue from the private service providers. It cost $39.5 million to build the infrastructure, including the cost of the bonds and three years of operating revenue, DeLaMare-Schaefer says.

“We expect to be cash-flow positive after three years on an operating basis and contribute [the profits] to our general fund so the money stays in the city instead of going out to the big incumbents,” she notes. 

Since representatives from about 100 other cities have come to visit Provo and learn about the network, we might expect to hear about more projects like this in the near future.