Traverse City News and Events

TCLP's High-Speed Fiber Is Here, With Expansion -- And Competitors -- On The Horizon

By Craig Manning | Sept. 19, 2020

Long a topic of interest in Traverse City, fiber internet is now being installed for the first residential customers -- and could soon become available to many more. After months of delay, a pandemic-forced project pause, and an $800,000 loan from the City of Traverse City, Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP) has officially soft-launched its TCLPfiber network. Meanwhile, private companies like Michigan Broadband Services are building out their own fiber networks in Traverse City – and asking questions about whether public entities, private companies, or a collaboration of both is the best way to deliver fiber internet service to the whole northern Michigan community.

According to Scott Menhart, TCLP’s chief technology officer, the initial timeline for the TCLPfiber network would have had the utility hooking up its first fiber customers as early as May 1. COVID-19 threw a wrench in those plans, forcing TCLP to halt its fiber project “until it was deemed that it was critical infrastructure and we could start up again.”

Now, though, TCLP has officially started hooking up business and residential customers within its Phase 1 TCLPfiber footprint. That radius (pictured) will allow TCLP to serve about 2,200 potential customers. Following a “soft launch” on August 25 – one without any big marketing push – Menhart tells The Ticker that TCLP already has dozens of sign-ups, with more rolling in every day.

One advantage of the pandemic delay, Menhart says, is that it allowed TCLP to plan for a more full-deployment launch. The utility finalized agreements with contractors and began building the fiber network last fall. However, since the City of Traverse City mandates a moratorium on underground work in city rights-of-way from November 15 to April 15, TCLP had limited time to make progress on the network before winter hit. Despite delays, Menhart says the full Phase 1 network is now mostly built-out, which will mean quicker turnaround for a complete launch.

TCLP is also looking ahead to the next steps for TCLPfiber. One was made possible earlier this month by an $800,000 interfund loan from the City of Traverse City, which will help finance what Menhart calls “Phase 1.1.” That partial phase will expand TCLPfiber availability to include 1,021 additional customers in the Central neighborhoods downtown, from Front Street to Fourteenth Street and Division to Cass. Phase 1.1 customers could be hooked up to the TCLPfiber network by the end of next summer.

Menhart notes that TCLP is also “looking at a bigger funding opportunity with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)” which would help cover the cost of the project’s second phase, which would include the remainder of TCLP’s electrical network. That could begin as early as next fall.

Though TCLP previously indicated that its TCLPfiber network would exclusively target its citywide electrical customers, the company is also considering a “Phase 3,” which would look beyond those boundaries.

“Serving telecom customers is different than serving electrical customers,” Menhart explains. “There are state and federal regulations on electrical utilities where we can't serve and compete in some areas. Telecom doesn't have those same restrictions, so we can go into other areas outside of our current electrical footprint.”

“If we have a huge pocket of the population [outside of the city] that wants to have our services, that's great information for the board to have to make a decision.”

Some customers outside the city already have access to fiber service, thanks to private companies. AcenTek spent 2018 and 2019 installing fiber optic lines on Old Mission Peninsula, while Michigan Broadband Services has been offering commercial fiber optic deployments in Traverse City since 2017. Since Michigan Broadband’s first commercial deployment – at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons – President and General Manager Bruce Moore says the company has invested $3 million in building 20 miles of fiber network throughout the area. The company currently provides fiber internet services to more than 400 local commercial customers.

The current Michigan Broadband Services network spans much of the same downtown radius as TCLPfiber, as well as outlying areas to the east of town (out to around Five Mile Road) and to the west (out to N. Long Lake Road). Sales Director Joe Dey says the company is building out the network “incrementally” each year and is currently looking at a potential expansion to also serve local residential customers.

Both Moore and Dey question the city’s decision to allocate money – even a loan that must be repaid – to a public utility’s fiber internet project. Dey wonders whether the money could have been allocated to addressing “other needs in Traverse City, rather than building a fiber network that is already a commodity that our company and other companies like ours are bringing to the community.” Moore, meanwhile, thinks the best option for the future of Traverse City fiber could be some form of partnership between the TCLPfiber project and privately-owned fiber players.

“There are a lot of different hybrid models out there, and I would be interested if TCLP would be willing to open their network and give us access to some of the fiber infrastructure…that would expedite our ability and their ability to serve more of the city.”

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