Good news for Rim Country residents and officials seeking fast, redundant broadband and an end to incessant outages.
Arizona Public Service (APS) and Sparklight (formerly Cable ONE) are talking.
And they might make it official.
That’s the encouraging word that emerged this week at the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon, which featured a representative from Sparklight.
The hoped-for agreement could end the region’s blackouts by creating a broadband loop for cell phone service and key businesses.
But it might not make a big difference for folks at home — depending on whether existing internet and cable providers CenturyLink and Suddenlink participate.
Outages have cost Rim Country businesses tens of thousands of dollars, cast a shadow across economic development prospects and contributed to at least one death. After five years of frustration, a solution seems imminent.
At the Nov. 5 chamber luncheon, Ken Conner, Sparklight director of market development, said Rim Country’s broadband outage woes would soon be over thanks largely to a big investment by the MHA Foundation.
“We are in the process of building (a broadband line) right now from Heber to Show Low ... we are in the permitting process from Heber to Payson. Maybe in the first quarter of next year we’ll be ready to go,” he said.
As it happens, that’s about when APS figures a high-speed, broadband trunk line strung on its power poles will reach the Payson area. If Sparklight connects to that line, it will create a high-speed, high-capacity loop from Phoenix, through Payson, to the White Mountains and back down to Phoenix. As a result, the signal would loop around if the line is cut anywhere along the way.
Conner encouraged residents to look for signs of the build out between Payson and Show Low.
The new Sparklight line could serve businesses along the highway and cell phone providers — but not necessarily people getting cable at home through CenturyLink and Suddenlink.
Rural market hurdles
Conner said CenturyLink has shown no interest in upgrading the broadband line. “Usually smaller markets are underdeveloped,” he noted, because of a lack of customers whose payments make the investment in an upgrade profitable.
Except in Payson.
Conner explained the differences.
“I have to say kudos to the foresight of the MHA Foundation and RCEA (Rim Country Educational Alliance SLE), they gave us a sizable donation to make that backbone build out possible,” he said.
The second boost came from the federal government’s E-rate program, which helps schools and libraries upgrade internet speeds.
Sparklight will receive $22 million from E-rate to bring high-speed broadband to Payson, Pine, Tonto Basin, Young, Globe, Miami and Hayden-Winkelman schools and libraries.
This will dramatically increase speed and capacity, but won’t guarantee that service won’t go down because of a cut in the line. The CenturyLink line is a dead-end spur coming up from Camp Verde. So is the new Sparklight line from Show Low.
That’s where APS comes in.
APS has announced plans to sling a broadband, fiber optic cable along its transmission lines from Phoenix to its Cholla Power Plant in Joseph City. The APS broadband cable will serve internal APS communication needs. However, it has additional capacity. APS says it has not settled on its leasing fees, but Sparklight wants to piggyback on the APS line to save money and time.
For Sparklight, entrenching its own line between Payson and Phoenix poses all kinds of problems. However, APS can string the line on existing transmission lines without new permits or digging trenches through rock.
The new line will swing open the door to internet-dependent businesses — from schools to manufacturing plants and telecommuting uses. Economic development advocates say reliable, high-speed internet has become essential infrastructure for many businesses.
However, Conner admitted homeowners won’t see an immediate improvement in their broadband service.
“Our focus is on businesses. We are looking at economic development,” he said.
For instance, Verizon could put its signals on the new network, providing Sparklight with a key customer. In that case, a cut in the line would no longer knock out cell service.
Conner noted that his plan still might not prompt Suddenlink to connect to the new system. If Suddenlink did, it would help Sparklight round out profitability, since businesses account for just 15 percent of their customers. At home users pay the other 85 percent of a broadband provider’s income.
Conner said for now, providing high-speed redundant internet to home users will be a discussion for another day.
“The way we build our network, we look at every business within 1,000 feet of it,” said Conner. “We service you with a drop, if your power is overhead. Over time, we’ll look at a network over 1,000 feet.”
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