Future Fibre: FairlawnGig

Fast municipal fibre optic internet in Ohio

Fairlawn Ohio is a town with a population below 8,000 on the outskirts of Akron, just south of Cleveland, where residents have access to one of the fastest Internet connections in North America. FairlawnGig is a municipal broadband utility that offers a stellar example of what communities can accomplish when taking control of their Internet.

Unlike many of the other projects and communities we’ve profiled in our Future Fibre series, FairlawnGig is relatively new, with initial service provided in 2017, but the municipally owned utility is already providing a solid return on the investment to the public purse, as well as expanding beyond the municipality to the surrounding region.

Unfortunately it does seem rare that municipal politicians recognize the long term value and economic development opportunity that exists with the development of fibre optic infrastructure. This is partly what makes Fairlawn Ohio such an interesting example, one that other small municipalities can learn from.

In 2015 the mayor and council of Fairlawn proposed a municipal fibre optic project (that would include public WiFi access) with the specific intent of encouraging local (and regional) economic development. Residents also offered enthusiastic support as they desired faster residential connections.

Unlike some of the other municipalities we’ve profiled, like Chattanooga Tennessee, Fairlawn did not already have a municipal utility that could install and maintain the fibre optic network. As a result, they sought a private partner, going the P3 route for municipal infrastructure: the public private partnership. While such arrangements are often notoriously inefficient and ineffective, this particular partnership between Fairlawn and Fujitsu seems to have worked out quite well.

The project cost for the municipality was $10.1 million dollars. While that may be a significant size for a smaller township, it has already paid off both in terms of local economic development, but also ongoing revenues, as the utility is not only self-sustaining but is profitable. This has included regional expansion, including connecting the innovation hub in nearby Akron Ohio.

Specifically the regional expansion by FairlawnGig is partly enabled by accessing a fibre optic network owned and operated by the larger county.

The community is leasing space on the Medina County Fiber Network and has started offering its FairlawnGig service to businesses and households along the government-owned network, which stretches for 151 miles throughout Medina County and into Parma and downtown Akron.
“We’re now more of a regional provider than just a city of Fairlawn provider,” said Ernie Staten, the city deputy director of public service who oversees FairlawnGig.
Residential and business customers in Medina County and downtown Akron now are able to sign up for the municipal-run Internet and phone services.

One of the features FairlawnGig can boast about is their speed, and latency, making them one of the fastest ISPs in North America, including a favourite for gamers:

It would be interesting if in time a disproportionate number of professional video game players came from Fairlawn, the same way that Ohio generates a lot of basketball talent in the wake of LeBron James. ;)

FairlawnGig has also achieved impressive customer satisfaction, which I see as a direct result of their being run by a public institution.

While large Internet service providers routinely face some of the lowest customer satisfaction rates in the country, municipal broadband networks, like FairlawnGig in Fairlawn, Ohio, have set themselves apart by offering superior customer service to residents and businesses.
Case in point: recent subscriber surveys from FairlawnGig revealed that 94% of residential respondents were satisfied with their service from the community-owned network. Businesses in Fairlawn also appreciate the municipal fiber provider. A similar survey given to businesses showed that about 700 jobs — at least — can be directly ascribed to the FairlawnGig network.
“Our customer service revolves around our building a strong and diverse network to our residents and businesses,” Fairlawn Deputy Director of Public Service Ernie Staten said in a press release. “We have the extremely high customer satisfaction scores to prove it.”

For example, check out this second FAQ resource they have called “Ask Ernie” run by the Ernie Staten quoted above.

Finally what is interesting and relevant for small communities is the economic development potential that comes from investing in this kind of infrastructure.

FairlawnGig is attracting businesses as well as home buyers. Most are office tenants, such as engineering, consulting and IT firms, that require fast, reliable broadband. In addition, there have been several larger wins. Crystal Clinic Orthopaedic Center, a practice with about a dozen facilities in the region, plans to build its flagship orthopedic hospital in Fairlawn. The center says that the new hospital, which “will be a destination facility like no other in Northeast Ohio,” represents a major advancement for the region, providing access to world‐class orthopedic and reconstructive care with 12 operating rooms, 60 inpatient beds, advanced medical technologies, imaging and other patient support services.
The state-of-the-art technology that is essential to the new Crystal Clinic facility is supported by FairlawnGig. Staten points out that the hospital was offered free land to build the facility in Akron but chose instead to spend $4 million on land in Fairlawn so it could have access to the fiber network. He adds, “The headquarters and back office facility will have a direct fiber connection to the new hospital – this is important because of HIPAA issues.”
Another major win is the planned move to Fairlawn by TrustedSec, a well-known information security consulting company. TrustedSec has agreed to purchase 4 acres in a city-owned office research park at full market value and move about 30 jobs to Fairlawn, with more to be added later.
Again, FairlawnGig is an essential component of the deal. The company’s owner and other team members make regular appearances on broadcast and cable news channels to discuss cybersecurity and data privacy stories. According to Staten, the company plans to build a studio so team members can conduct TV interviews directly from their office.
FairlawnGig also attracts public sector business. The city is now finalizing an agreement to handle computer-aided 911 dispatch for all of Summit County, whose total population is about 550,000. This project is part of a larger effort to centralize emergency response within the county; the first step is to centralize the computer-aided dispatch on a private network. FairlawnGig will design, supply equipment for and operate the private network and will maintain a backup site in its data center.

One of the obstacles small municipalities face when it comes to improving their Internet connectivity, is the small minded attitude that the Internet is for entertainment, and that access is largely for personal use.

However the bigger potential is to look at the bigger picture and the economic opportunities enabled by fast, reliable, and affordable Internet access. Fairlawn Ohio is a powerful example as the tangible benefits from investing in Internet infrastructure are evidently clear.

Smaller communities are in a great position to offer a better quality of life, more affordable housing and living costs, and a human scale that many people increasingly desire. The missing piece has been reliable high speed Internet access, and FairlawnGig is another reminder that municipalities have an important role to play in making it happen.

Also, you gotta love an ISP whose only video is to help their users sign up for their email newsletter. ;)

“Future Fibre” is a recurring series in the Metaviews newsletter where we share some of the research, other models, news, and ideas around community based connectivity. While the series is published via our newsletter, it’s also available via news.metaviews.ca/tag/fibre, so you can share the entire series with interested parties.

The series is sponsored by our friends at EasyDNS:

I’ve been an EasyDNS customer for almost 20 years (and I know a number of you are as well based on my recommendation). Mark Jeftovic the co-founder and CEO is a long time friend and Metaviews subscriber. EasyDNS is one of the best service providers on the Internet, and Mark ensures his customers have the benefits of the latest and most secure technology.

Mark also writes a smart newsletter called #AxisofEasy and has just published a fascinating book called “Unassailable”, which we recently reviewed. I’m thrilled that Mark shares my belief in the potential for micro-ISPs and is sponsoring this series as a result.

Metaviews is also now a partner in the AxisofEasy.com website that aggregates and amplifies content from us, Mark, and Charles Hugh Smith.

Jesse Hirsh

Jesse Hirsh