Open Access Fiber Networks Explained; Underline’s Intelligent Community Network
In Open Access Fiber networks, the same physical network infrastructure is utilized by multiple providers delivering services to subscribers. The Open Access business model has been drawing attention globally as governments and municipalities find the concept of offering competition between providers and the freedom of choice for the subscriber is essential. It has also proved to be a feasible way to connect rural areas where service providers might have a hard time generating enough revenue to justify investing in their own network infrastructure.
Open access fiber networks can be the foundation for distributed healthcare, 5G, and resilient, modernized infrastructure—including responsible energy creation and secure community smart grids.
For subscribers to benefit from the freedom of choice and competition between providers that are delivering services using the same network infrastructure they will need a comprehensive way to browse the assortment of services offered.
Open Access network operators must keep track of:
- Every single subscriber in the network, their physical address, their “technical address” (switch, switch port, etc.).
- Which services they are buying from which provider/s.
- The total number of customers and/or services bought if you’re operating in a three-layer model where you have to report back to the network owners how their network is utilized.
Already common in Europe with Sweden as the best known example, open access networks are just beginning to gain market traction in the U.S. While U.S. community-wide network operators like SiFi Networks and UTOPIA Fiber (Utah) have adopted a wholesale-like business model, newcomer Underline is taking a bit more of a direct approach.
“When people say open access in this country, they typically mean ISPs can come in and lease fiber and choose to build a given neighborhood that hasn’t been overbuilt yet. We mean something very different,” Underline CEO Robert Thompson told Fierce Telecom. “We are not a wholesale leaser of fiber. We are the fiber network literally to the doorbell.”
Underline isn’t just providing physical fiber-to-the-home infrastructure, but also a unified billing system and cybersecurity layer. The latter will allow the communities it serves to deploy smart city applications over an on-demand Layer 2 (Data Link layer) connection that will never touch the Layer 3 (Network layer) public internet, Thompson said.
“On the one hand, we directly face consumers and businesses, schools and so forth and we provide them network access connectivity and technology for a monthly connection fee. On the other hand, we look like a network infrastructure-as-a-service provider to the ISPs or content community,” Thompson said.
“We don’t provide IP,” he continued. “We’re going to move your traffic from your house ultrafast over fiber and we’re going to hand off you and your traffic to the internet service provider of your choosing. That ISP is then your IP, the routing of your traffic. They’re connecting you to that glorious world wide web,” he added.
Thompson said Underline will charge users directly on a monthly basis for connectivity, with their chosen ISP getting a portion of that cost. So, for instance, in the case where a subscriber takes a $65 per month symmetric gigabit plan, the ISP will get a $15 cut. Underline also plans to charge licensing and per subscriber fees for use of its technology stack.
Underline is now initiating construction in its first market: Colorado Springs, CO. The company will offer residential speeds up to 10 Gbps and enterprise service up to 100 Gbps, with qualifying households eligible to receive a discounted rate on Underline’s bottom tier symmetrical 500 Mbps plan.
The project will be completed in several stages, with a Phase I build set to connect 24,000 homes and 4,000 businesses with 225 route miles of fiber plant. Initial customers will include the the National Cybersecurity Center, the new Space Information Sharing and Analysis Center and Altia Software.
Thompson says that Phase II will cover roughly the same amount of ground and Underline also has a build agreement with an unnamed city “immediately surrounding” Colorado Springs. Taken together, construction in both phases and the second city will amount to “an exercise of approximately $125 million in total capital.”
“We are after this with a vengeance, and we are very thankfully supported by very strong capital,” Thompson said, noting a “drumbeat of steady announcements of drills in the dirt in new communities” is on the way.
Thompson said Underline is targeting communities with populations between 20,000 and 750,000. He noted that such communities have “historically been basically ignored by the incumbents (large telcos) and which by and large will not qualify” for federal support for broadband deployments.
Beyond that, he said Underline’s market assessments include factors like demand point density per fiber route mile, a population productivity ratio, a competition index and a social equity analysis. The latter is a key priority for Underline and “part of our social purpose,” Thompson explained.
“We want to understand and we actually want to target communities that have a significant portion of their demand points that have no internet at all or very poor internet at home because of socio economic status. This country’s got to have internet that’s fast, affordable and fair,” he concluded.