The network, which is privately funded and built, will provide an easier entry point for small ISPs – and more choice for individuals.
When COVID-19 ended in-person schooling, there were approximately 2,500 families in Colorado Springs School District 11 without high-speed internet connections at home, meaning 10% of students could not easily switch to school. distance learning.
As the district worked to bridge the digital divide – by installing wireless hotspots and boosting school Wi-Fi signals so children can use the internet in parking lots – they also started a conversation with Austin-based fiber infrastructure company. Underline. Underline was working with the city of Colorado Springs for a city wide open access fiber optic network. Such a network could directly address the lack of services for these families, as well as the city’s larger digital divide.
The first step in making this network a reality came in October, when Colorado Springs took the first steps to host the nation’s first true open access community fiber network. “Imagine a student sitting in their kitchen and they will have the same broadband access they would have at school,” says John McCarron, deputy superintendent and district information director. “They would have access to all educational resources and the curriculum through District 11.”
This is an attractive possibility for an infrastructure that is just starting to gain traction in the United States, due to challenges by large companies. “People in this country are finally talking about open access fiber as a concept,” said Underline Founder and CEO Bob Thompson.
Underline is bringing “truly competitive open access” to Colorado Springs by building new fiber Internet lines and inviting several independent providers to operate services on the network. For residents who become customers of Underline, they choose their speed and service provider through the company. Underline will bill users directly on a monthly basis for connectivity, with the ISP of their choice receiving a portion of this cost.
The network will be privately funded, according to Thompson, and does not require city funding or other public investment. Although Underline goes through the standard licensing process with Colorado Springs Utilities, there is no installation requirement on the part of the city. Note that the city’s growth, business climate and reputation as a center of the cybersecurity industry promised enough integrated activities.
The model has several advantages: it is easier for small and new businesses to enter the market without facing the high costs of building their own network; consumers then have more choice beyond what large companies offer. Underline makes it easy to switch between service providers and also offers a unified billing experience to increase payment transparency.
Prices will range from $ 49 per month to $ 250 per month for different levels of service. For low-income families who qualify for Underline’s Opportunity program, the 500 Mbps plan will be available for $ 30 per month. “Even if a family gets a drastically reduced service from us, we won’t provide them with a worse service than someone will get if they pay full price,” said Thompson.
Beyond providing these affordable rates, Underline is working with District 11 to meet the needs of low-income students as distance learning becomes a mainstay alongside in-person classes. Highlight plans to enable a private network for the district that straddles the open access fiber optic network and which students can potentially access from their homes. Using this technology, students can easily access the program, resources and learning materials. It also allows the district to secure the network by implementing parental controls on the sites that students can access.
“We will be testing, from a technology standpoint, to see how we can secure private and proprietary information on the network, while leveraging the network to meet the needs of today’s students,” says McCarron. The school plans to complete its “proof of concept” tests and set up network connectivity with Underline by March 2022.
The next phase, according to McCarron, “is to identify neighborhoods, schools and families in the national school meals program, and see how we can provide the necessary access to apartment complexes and single-family homes.” This will be followed by a pilot project to see how the service works inside these homes, before potentially expanding to students across the district.
This pilot will take place as Underline builds its first phase of fiber infrastructure in Colorado Springs, enough to serve 24,000 homes and 4,000 businesses. Thompson hopes this network can be a model for implementation in other mid-sized cities struggling to bridge their digital divides.
“We cannot let parts of the country fall behind because these communities lack critical infrastructure,” he said. “We’re looking to change the dialogue about how private companies and innovators partner with communities to solve these kinds of issues.