Using schools as anchor tenants, a competitive provider is building metro fiber networks in small Western cities – and partnering with last-mile providers to serve homes and small businesses.
By Masha Zager / Broadband Communities
A collaboration between a metro fiber network builder and a rural microwave provider is beginning to deliver fiber to the home to multifamily housing in small Idaho cities. This model shows how creative financing and partnerships can make FTTH business models work even in unlikely places.
Fatbeam, a competitive provider that launched in 2010, builds metro fiber rings in third-tier markets (populations of 25,000 to 100,000) and fourth-tier markets (populations of 5,000 to 25,000) in the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains – markets that were not previously served by fiber – and serves community anchor institutions in those markets. To date, it has built more than 300 miles of fiber infrastructure in more than 15 markets. “Fatbeam’s mission is to provide high-speed Internet connectivity to more rural areas and, in doing so, enhancing education opportunities, delivering greater public safety and driving economic growth while also maintaining profitability,” explains Greg Green, the company’s president.
Fatbeam’s model is to identify a market it can profitably serve and then bid on an E-Rate contract for the school district. E-Rate, formally the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, subsidizes connectivity for K–12 schools and libraries at amounts that vary based on local income levels and other factors. When Fatbeam wins an E-Rate contract, it builds a metro fiber network specifically for the schools and then extends the network to serve hospitals, factories, data centers, government offices or other large customers that want either dark fiber or Gigabit Ethernet connections. Each metro network is connected to a long-haul fiber route so the communities don’t become little fiber “islands” cut off from the rest of the Internet.
Changes the FCC made to the E-Rate program in 2010, following the recommendations of the National Broadband Plan, gave schools more flexibility in connecting to fiber optic networks and made schools more aware of the benefits of fiber. Fatbeam and similar providers who win E-Rate contracts can use school districts as anchor tenants for metro fiber networks – and, as Green says, “you really need to have an anchor tenant for the network to make financial sense.”
Although Fatbeam doesn’t serve homes or small businesses directly, in each community it looks for a partner to lease some of its fiber and provide retail broadband services. One of those partners is Intermax, a company that was founded 11 years ago as a rural microwave provider. Intermax originally leased fiber from Fatbeam to backhaul fiber from its own towers. “Our anchor tenant was ourselves,” says Mike Kennedy, president of Intermax. In the process of connecting its towers, Kennedy says, his company “bought into” the idea of a fiber backbone network, leased additional fiber strands and helped Fatbeam plan its routes to pass as many commercial corridors as possible so it could serve businesses. Intermax uses MikroTik core routers and, for its hosted PBX offering – which is generating a great deal of interest among small businesses – it uses Cisco VoIP equipment to prioritize voice service and ensure quality of service.
However, the schools Fatbeam was connecting via E-Rate contracts were generally in residential neighborhoods, and Intermax quickly realized that those neighborhoods presented opportunities as well. It began extending fiber to serve clients in residential neighborhoods, including apartment complexes.
One new 70-unit apartment project, Fairway Meadows in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, expected to open in early 2014, is targeting upscale, techsavvy residents, and the developers requested a full fiber pipe home-run to each unit. The base level of Internet services, included with the rent, will be 10 Mbps, and residents can upgrade to 100 Mbps. The developer lists “free fiber-wire Internet” first on its list of amenities for Fairway Meadows. Kennedy says, “They don’t want to have to worry about residents leaving for lack of bandwidth.”
Other MDU complexes are in the negotiation stages. “As the economy has rebounded, construction is restarting, and lending is easier,” Kennedy explains. With fiber backhaul, Intermax’s microwave network has become increasingly powerful, benefiting the economies of the areas it serves outside the towns. “People are moving there to live in rural isolation,” Kennedy says, noting that rural isolation is more appealing when residents can work or run businesses from home. Being able to offer both fiber and microwave service is a plus for Intermax. A number of business clients purchase both services, using fiber for primary connectivity and microwave for failover redundancy. The two connections, though both ultimately lead to the same network, can be routed in different ways so customers can be certain of 100 percent uptime.
The fiber network’s “consistency, clarity and uptime are just fantastic,” according to Kennedy, and support costs are far lower than for microwave. “It’s exciting to be on the cutting edge,” he adds.
Donation provides complete wifi internet coverage for the 11-acre downtown park
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
May 24, 2014
COEUR D’ALENE— Intermax Networks today announced the completion and turnup of a new wifi hotspot covering all of the newly rebuilt McEuen Park in downtown Coeur d’Alene.
“McEuen Park is a sign of a great community coming together to rejuvenate one of the most important parts of Coeur d’Alene,” said Mike Kennedy, President of Intermax. “We wanted to be part of the team that helped make this the best public park in the Northwest,” Kennedy added.
The bandwidth, fiber equipment, access points, switches, and ongoing maintenance will all be paid for by Intermax Networks as a donation to the citizens of Coeur d’Alene. Intermax is headquartered in Coeur d’Alene and serves more than 3,000 residents, businesses, internet data and phone customers throughout North Idaho and Eastern Washington.
“The children of our team and our customers are going to be enjoying McEuen Park for decades into the future,” Kennedy said. “We are happy to ensure that the park is fully modern and fully covered with free public wifi ,” Kennedy concluded.
Merger Creates Largest Inland Northwest Independent Telecommunications Provider
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 30, 2014
COEUR D’ALENE— Intermax Networks today announced the merger with Thompson Communications (TCI) of Coeur d’Alene. Over the last 12 years, TCI has become the most successful independent telephone equipment supplier in its markets. Intermax has developed digital voice services using the internet rather than traditional copper wires. Intermax has a redundant electronic phone switch enabling virtual PBX services in the region. The combination of TCI and Intermax will give business customers an extensive menu of phone and data services. .
“Tad Thompson built the strongest independent phone solution provider in the region and their company has a stellar reputation for integrity, service, and quality products,” said Mike Kennedy, President of Intermax. “We are pleased to add their team to ours to extent our product range for the not only the best but the most cost effective data and voice solutions in North Idaho and the Inland Northwest,” Kennedy added.
Internet. Phones. Fiber. Trust Intermax.
Intermax Networks has built the largest independent fiber and private microwave data network in North Idaho. We provide internet, digital phone, transport connections, and Point-to-Point circuits connecting North Idaho to places all across Idaho and the Northwest. Our main office is in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho with offices in Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry serving Kootenai, Bonner, Boundary, and Spokane Counties.
Intermax supplies more than 2,500 customers with service on a monthly basis, from individual residences to major infrastructure connections for business, government, health care and schools. Our network includes direct Intermax fiber connections to: Tierpoint in Liberty Lake, Downtown Spokane (U.S. Bank), Seattle (The Westin Fiber Hub) and other POPs around the Inland Northwest.
With a staff of nearly 30 people across three offices in North Idaho Intermax is committed to our community. We are owned and managed by North Idaho people. We have no conflicting objectives in California or Virginia. We don’t have a corporate parent expecting us to send our earnings to New York or be small outposts for large corporate mergers.
Our focus is on superior broadband service to business and residents in North Idaho and we are willing to invest what it takes to accomplish that.
Here is a small representative sampling of Intermax's corporate customers:
- Qualfon/Center Partners
- Kootenai Health
- Hagadone Hospitality
- Northwest Specialty Hospital
- SQM Group
- Bonner County Daily Bee
- Advanced Benefits
- Dickinson Insurance
- Post Falls School District
- The Salvation Army Kroc Corps Community Center
- Gozzer Ranch/Discovery Properties in Harrison
- Post Falls Landing
- Falls Park Apartments