How an Internet Startup with Registrar Roots Plans to Take On Municipal Broadband

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For one Internet startup, President Barack Obama’s recent endorsement of municipal broadband services could not have been better-timed.

Ting, the mobile – and now Internet – services company that was launched in 2012 by Tucows announced its partnership with a city in Maryland last month. Through the agreement, the company will act as the network operator on Westminister’s city-owned fiber network.

It is a new role for Ting, who previously just offered mobile services. Under its Ting Internet brand, the company is looking for partners who are fed up with waiting for the big telecoms to bring them fiber-to-the-premises.

Adam Eisner, Director of Networks for Ting Internet, has been an employee of Tucows since 2004. (Full disclosure: prior to Tucows, Eisner was managing editor of the WHIR.) He said he has been focusing on Ting Internet for the past year-and-a-half.

“We looked fiber and the whole broadband space as a natural market for Ting because what Ting really did was bring an awesome experience, interfaces, and great support to an industry and business where people were largely very frustrated with their existing providers,” Eisner said. “We looked at the ISP space and thought that there seems to be a commonality between how people feel about their broadband providers.”

While there is certainly some commonality between its mobile and Internet services brands, Eisner said Ting Internet requires a much different approach technologically as well as regulatory; it’s “a little bit more nuanced then the mobile universe was,” he said in an interview with the WHIR.

“It’s not like Ting where Sprint has the platform and it’s really just an API for us to provision that platform, using a lot of the same experience and technology we have,” he said. “You can’t do that with broadband because there is no country-wide gigabit platform in America.”

“We started looking at different ways to get involved,” Eisner said. “It basically came down to acquiring companies in markets where there might be firms who have their own infrastructure or we would be partnering with municipalities to get involved in different regions.”

So far, Ting Internet has taken both approaches. The private-public partnership with Westminister, Md. and its acquisition of Blue Ridge Internetworks (BRI) in 2014, an ISP in Charlottesville, Va. that offers broadband services on its own fiber network.

“One of the things that’s attractive about BRI is they have done all the work to secure the various franchise agreements, arrangements, permits, that are necessary in order to construct a network,” Eisner said. “There’s a lot of municipal and statewide wrangling that’s necessary in order to even get anything in the ground.”

The Public-Private Partnership

Working with Westminister also presents an attractive option as it has already handled the regulatory process. There’s an obvious advantage because it is a municipality. In a blog post on Jan. 13, public sector IT consultant firm CTC Technology and Energy explained: “The City will fund, own, and maintain the fiber; Ting will lease the fiber and provide all equipment and services. Ting will pay the City to use the fiber—reducing the City’s risk while enabling Ting to offer Gigabit Internet in Westminster without having to build a fiber network from scratch.”

“Historically, what we’ve seen is a lot of municipalities that believe building a fiber optic network in their city is a good idea because they’re being ignored by incumbents or they’re unhappy with the service. We believe that cities should go out and do that and should own that infrastructure,” Eisner said. “Where things get a little messy is when a municipality builds it or builds a part of it and they don’t know what to do with the operation of it or the provisioning of services on top of it. A lot of municipalities have started but haven’t really properly finished the job.”

Of course, there are exceptions, Eisner said, providing the example of Chattanooga, Tn., where the city’s municipally owned electricity company EPB runs its fiber optic network, providing 1 Gigabit-per-second Internet speeds to more than 150,000 homes and businesses in the community.

“We love the idea of what Westminister is doing where it’s basically a public-private partnership. The city is spending the time to secure the resources and the permissions necessary to build the network; they’re building it but then they’re looking for a partner who has a lot of experience in properly pricing, managing and selling these services.”

What the Big Guys Think

So, what do the big telecoms think about municipally-owned fiber networks?

“You’ll see a lot of rhetoric from the big guys saying ‘we don’t understand why municipalities would want to do this, four, five, 10 megabits down should be good enough for everybody’,” Eisner said. “You also hear a lot of rhetoric from [ISP] companies based on what companies need today. Not really thinking that going forward households are just going to eat up more bandwidth and want more speed and less caps and all of that.”

“There’s a great quote from the CEO of Frontier [Communications, Maggie Wilderotter] where she says even bringing up the word gigabit is insulting to customers because they don’t understand. That’s the kind of mindset we’re dealing with,” he said. Another perspective is the cost to taxpayers associated with municipally-owned fiber networks.

And while ISPs so far have been successful in preventing municipal broadband operators like those in Chattanooga from expanding to nearby communities because of state laws, this could soon change. Earlier this week, a FCC proposal to pre-empt state laws that have blocked “timely and reasonable” deployment of high-speed Internet in Tennessee and North Carolina was released, according to a report by Extreme Tech. The FCC is expected to vote on the proposal by the end of the month.

The Future of Ting Internet and the Opportunity for Hosts

The FCC’s decision may support Ting Internet’s future expansion plans, including adding more staff in Charlottesville to expand the network. Ting Internet is expected to launch in Charlottesville in the first half of 2015.

Eisner tells the WHIR that once Ting Internet is established in Westminister and Charlottesville, it plans to look at more markets. He is not concerned about demand for municipally-owned fiber networks as it has been a challenge for BRI to serve everyone that has expressed interest in its services.

“The good news [for hosts] is it’s just going to lead to more homes and businesses wanting to do things online – moving more of their lives in the cloud,” he said. “As that usage increases I think that there will be more opportunities for hosting providers and service providers to reach out to those users.”

Eventually, Ting plans to have one central support for its customers, so they can see their charges for Ting Internet and mobile on the same bill.

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