ITHACA, N.Y.—Efforts in New York to close the digital divide and bring high speed internet access to homes in the state’s rural reaches will see the Town of Nichols in Tioga County become a test case for building an open-access fiber network that runs directly to households and businesses. 

Building an open-access network is a big step in a different direction from the approach that has dominated any expansion of broadband service in New York, or the country at large for that matter. This network would allow any internet service provider (ISP) to tap in and offer their services to customers in the Town of Nichols. Previously, expanding access has primarily relied on incentivizing larger private businesses to build out into sparse areas, owning the networks they develop, creating monopolistic conditions in local and regional areas. 

This open-access network stands to benefit smaller companies, like an Ithaca-based internet ISP that’s trying to “reclaim the internet.”

Fiberspark was incorporated in Ithaca in 2012, starting out as a class project for a group of Cornell undergraduate students of which two now remain: Jeff Shaffer as CEO and Tyler Dufault as Head of Business Development for the company. The phrase “reclaim the internet” appears on the Fiberspark website, and it translates into the company’s stated mission to bring America’s internet speeds to parity with other developed nations, like South Korea, Sweden and Japan, says Shaffer.

They’re the first ISP to agree to serve the Town of Nichols on the open-access network, dubbed Nichols Fiber, which is being built by the Southern Tier Network (STN) as one of four model projects in New York’s ConnectALL initiative to expand broadband internet access across the state.

The project will mark STN’s first foray into “last mile fiber,” or running fiber along residential, sparsely populated roads. Until taking on Nichols Fiber, the organization has focused on building out “backbone” open access networks, connecting large companies, hospitals, universities and other major institutions. 

The Town of Nichols had previously been working to build out broadband internet to its residents, working with the Tioga County Legislature, and had a project that was ready to go when their search for grant funding was met with the ConnectALL initiative’s search for projects to conduct across the state. 

The upfront investment for building out a mile of fiber optic cable along telephone polls, Shaffer said, is upwards of $30,000. The effort to maintain that infrastructure and provide customer service, though, is fairly low, he added. This high upfront cost of meeting customers creates steep challenges for small companies aiming  to break in and compete with established ISPs. 

This dilemma has required Fiberspark to request deposits of $150 to $500 before building out into pre-planned “districts” where it could provide internet service, and guarantee a return on its investment. 

But the open-access network being built in Nichols would remove that obstacle for companies and, in theory, advantage the fastest, most affordable, and most reliable service in that town’s market.

Fiberspark is small, with Shaffer and Dufault being the only employees. It serves around 700 households in Ithaca, though they’re hoping to more than double that as they begin to serve potentially 800 households through the open access network being built in the Town of Nichols. 

“We’re small enough to go after something like this, but we have enough experience to be able to do it effectively,” Dufault said.

Fiberspark specializes in providing a fiber optic internet connection, which allows them to offer up to 1,000 Mbps for download and upload speeds. For reference, cable internet download speeds typically reach 100Mbps at the high end but is generally slower. Satellite and/or 4G mobile hotspots, which many in rural America will use for lack of a better option, are disappointingly worse. They give download speeds of Mbps within the single digit.

Amy Fuhr, owner and operator of the William Henry Miller Inn, is a Fiberspark customer and ranks their service as “fabulous.”

“[Spectrum] is so expensive, and it wasn’t working that great. So I was happy to find someone to switch to,” said Fuhr. “And that’s how I started using Fiberspark, and I’ve been trying to get them out to my house ever since.”

Town of Nichols Councilperson Esther Woods has been a big proponent for expanding broadband access in Nichols. She herself moved from the Village of Nichols, where she had cable internet service, a few miles away into the Town of Nichols to find only after buying her home that Spectrum didn’t service the area, and wouldn’t unless she paid around $10,000 for the company to run a line to her house. 

“$10,000, that’s just unrealistic. These companies are just really leaving people behind,” Woods said.

Pending the results of this project, STN CEO Jeffrey Gasper said that the network in Nichols will could potentially be replicated in other areas throughout the organization’s fiber network. “We can do what we’re doing in Nichols pretty much anywhere on our existing footprint. Because we’ve got a model now that we can kind of cut and paste and do somewhere else.”

Once this network is built, Fiberspark would only have to run fiber optic cable from the telephone polls to its customers.

Woods said that she would like to see more ISPs come into the Town of Nichols and embrace the even playing field that the open access network creates and Fiberspark, in a way, seems to feel similarly.  

“We’ve already been doing battle with Spectrum in Ithaca for years,” Shaffer said. “We know how to beat them on every single aspect that somebody could want in an internet service. So no matter who else would come to an open access network, we welcome that competition.”

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at jjordan@ithacavoice.com Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn