There are many examples of the Centre Region serving as a trendsetter among other college towns. Unfortunately, the deployment of publicly accessible fiber-optic internet is one movement where State College has fallen behind many peers.
Fiber optic, or gigabit internet, is capable of transmitting one gigabit of data per second. For example, a two-hour HD movie could be downloaded in well under 30 seconds. You’ve probably heard of the big players, such as Verizon FiOS and Google Fiber. Several years ago, the Centre Region had an opportunity to submit a competitive proposal to become a Google Fiber community; it didn’t. Today, we’re in a catch-up mode.
To be fair, there are some fiber-optic lines underneath us. Many municipal and educational sites are linked up to larger public fiber networks. Comcast services some of these lines and is happy to connect businesses and households. The catch: you need to be located within a limited distance of existing fiber. This effectively leaves many households and businesses off the grid.
Like many communities, we are quickly approaching capacity limits on our existing broadband infrastructure. As we increase reliance on cloud-based services, demand for more and faster data connections will continue to skyrocket. Think about your own home: how many of your devices connect to the internet in some form or function? The entertainment industry also is in a transition to delivering content — in some cases, entire cable packages — via streaming web devices. This alone could push our local broadband capacity over its limit.
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Wiring any community with fiber optics is indeed an investment. While laying fiber is relatively easy on main utility corridors, the challenge lies in what is referred to as “the last mile” — connecting street fiber to homes, apartments and businesses.
Many deployment costs are absorbed by internet service providers. However, there are also documented community returns on investment. A 2014 study by Broadband Communities magazine discovered that simply having access to gigabit internet can increase home values by 3 percent and rental values by 8 percent. Using Zillow’s median State College home value of $278,000, being located on a fiber grid could mean an instant increase of $8,300 for homeowners.
Where we have fallen even further behind is the ability to provide fiber internet as part of a broader economic development strategy. Make no mistake: fiber-optic internet is no longer a luxury in the business world. It is a basic necessity and an absolute “must have” when selling the Centre Region as a place to do business. After gigabit internet was introduced to Chattanooga, Tenn., the founder of a business incubator told the New York Times that “it created a catalytic moment” and “allowed us to attract capital and talent into this community that never would have been here otherwise.”
Gigabit internet also is essential in addressing Pennsylvania’s ongoing epidemic of brain drain. In a 2014 survey conducted by the American Planning Association, millennials ranked high-speed internet access third in their list of priorities for community preferences, placing it only behind safe streets and affordable housing.
Advances in wireless technology may someday replace our wired infrastructure entirely. However, even the most advanced wireless services currently can’t offer the speed and capacity of fiber optics. Plus, wireless towers still need to connect to high-speed data lines, or backhaul, to carry internet traffic back to service providers.
The competition to become a fiber community is fierce. Instead of asking fiber suppliers why we need them, we need to proactively communicate why State College is a good contender for a fiber town. For example, Ting, a gigabit internet supplier that recently wired the college community of Charlottesville, Va., won’t spend time convincing towns “why” they should prioritize fiber. Ting’s website argues that communities should “be coming to the discussion with the sense that crazy fast-fiber internet is a thing they need in order to keep pace.”
Now is the time to explore how we can best develop and deploy our own gigabit internet. Centre Region leaders have proven capable of uniting across municipal lines to improve other regional infrastructures. The same can be done with fiber-optic internet.
Mark Parfitt is a resident and small-business owner in Patton Township. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.