If Sandpoint, Idaho Can Support a Gigabit Fiber ISP, So Can Your Town

“If I can profit there, I'll profit anywhere.”
March 4, 2016, 4:13pm

In the last few weeks, San Francisco and the relatively large city of Huntsville, Alabama learned that they would be getting new gigabit fiber internet access. The latest locale where a company is betting it can sustain a fiber presence? Sandpoint, Idaho.

Ting, a startup internet service provider that currently offers gigabit fiber in Charlottesville, Virginia and Westminster, Maryland and is planning a buildout in Holly Springs, North Carolina, says that the Idaho town of about 8,000 will be its next gigabit city.

Why should you, who is likely not a resident of Sandpoint, care about a small startup entering a small town 60 miles south of the Canadian border? Well, Ting's venture there is an experiment that could have a big impact on the future of broadband in the rest of the country.

Telecom incumbents like Verizon and AT&T, are focusing on building out fiber in major metropolitan areas. Google Fiber has come to big cities like Austin, Atlanta, and Kansas City, with buildout plans in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Nashville, and Charlotte.

"It's an experiment to see if we can make it work in a small town"

Google's two smallest Fiber cities, Provo, Utah and Huntsville, have circumstances that make it less risky for Google to move there. In Provo, Google acquired an existing fiber network built by the government; in Huntsville, it's going to be leasing a network built by the government. And even those cities have populations that are more than 10 times that of Sandpoint.

Ting's venture into Sandpoint is a proof-of-concept then. Can a fiber company make money in a small town without having the local government foot most of the bill?

"It's sort of, 'If I can profit there, I'll profit anywhere' and I think, for that reason, it ends up being good news for people in smaller cities and towns around the country," a Ting spokesperson told me. "It's an experiment to see if we can make it work in a small town."

Ting didn't choose Sandpoint at random, however. The town is already building fiber infrastructure in its downtown area that will connect municipal buildings "such as the courthouse, county administration, the library, and emergency services," according to the town's government. Ting will tap into this network (but will otherwise build the expensive part of the network itself) to serve as the backbone for its service.

Map of Sandpoint's new fiber backbone. Image: Sandpoint local government

Such an arrangement would be possible in lots of places: Many of America's cities and towns have fiber backbones that connect schools and public facilities but aren't used to service residents, because the most expensive part of making a fiber network is the "last mile" connections to individual homes.

In this case, Sandpoint is simply extending a fiber network that runs along the Northern Pacific Railroad into its downtown area. The town says it cost less than $80,000 to lay the backbone, and it planned on building the fiber regardless of whether it could get a company to offer fiber internet to its residents.

Sandpoint's internet situation isn't as dire as a lot of small towns—Northland, a Seattle-based cable company, offers cable internet to the town. A few other smaller ISPs offer "high speed dial up" and DSL services, which are more the norm in rural areas.

Ting's advertised 1000 Mbps connections will be 41 times faster than Northland's fastest connection but will cost $30 more ($89 per month for a gigabit connection; $19 for a 5 Mbps connection, which is $10 less than Northland's basic 6 Mbps tier).

"While it's obviously very important to get major metros connected with fast fiber Internet, Ting Internet is proving that the fastest Internet access available isn't just for city centers," Elliot Noss, Ting's CEO, said in a statement. "Smaller cities and towns need faster, more reliable Internet too. Maybe even more so."

If it can happen in Sandpoint, it can probably happen in your town, too.