Fiber Internet Coming Soon To Traverse City: When, Why, And Where?

Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP) is getting closer to offering fiber internet services to local customers. The utility does not yet have a concrete date set for customer hookups, but TCLP Executive Director Tim Arends tells The Ticker that the next month will see most of the crucial details ironed out.

“We’ve met with our fiber ad hoc committee, which is three members of our board, and gotten into the weeds a little bit on marketing, branding, and pricing [for the service],” Arends says. “We'll have another meeting around mid-January to finalize everything, with the idea of going to the full board at the first meeting in February with rates and speeds. I can't say what those will be without the full board weighing in, but I can tell you that it's going to be a superior service with area-competitive rates.”

Scott Menhart, TCLP’s chief information technology officer (as well as project manager for the fiber initiative), says installation for “Phase One” is almost complete. That first phase will enable TCLP to offer fiber internet service to residential and commercial customers in the downtown area, including the Central and Boardman neighborhoods, Eighth Street, Lake Street, and Woodmere Avenue. Roughly 2,100-2,200 of TCLP’s 12,700 customers will have access to the fiber network to start. That network consists of both aerial installations and underground components tied into TCLP’s Hall Street substation.

“The core fiber network itself, minus the customer drops, is basically stood-up,” Menhart says, though he notes that remaining underground work won’t be able to be completed until the spring. City policy puts a moratorium on construction in the right-of-way between November 15 and April 15. TCLP got some of the necessary right-of-way work done in the fall, but will need to finish the remainder in April. If all goes well, the plan is to have everything ready for subscriber hookups by May 1.

Phase Two, which would see full fiber deployment to the rest of TCLP’s customer base, has no timeline yet.

Just how fast will internet service be for TCLP’s first fiber adopters? That information won’t be finalized until the February board meeting, either, though Menhart says the plan is to offer at least “gig internet speeds,” or data transmission speeds of at least one gigabit (1,000 megabits) per second. But Menhart notes that TCLP is also “toying” with the idea of launching a 10-gig residential rate, or 10,000 megabits per second (mbps).

TCLP won’t actually be the first internet service provider to offer gig internet speeds in the area. According to Bill Morand, the senior director of communications for Charter Spectrum’s Great Lakes region, Spectrum first rolled out gig internet for residential customers and small business clients in October 2018, including Traverse City, Cadillac, Manistee, Petoskey, Big Rapids, and Ludington.

“I think the misnomer is that high-speed internet isn’t or wasn’t already available [in Traverse City],” Morand tells The Ticker. “Every single home or business that has Spectrum services available has gig services available, no exceptions. Businesses have faster speeds than that available to them.”

Charter’s website lists “Internet Gig” as the highest of three service tiers offered to residential customers. The service, which is quoted to offer 940+ mbps, starts at $109.99 per month.

Menhart says the TCLP fiber network will offer a few notable improvements over the current Charter Spectrum service.

“Charter has a hybrid network, meaning that some of their network backbone does consist of fiber, but the majority of what they run to residential homes is coaxial cable, and there are limitations to that,” Menhart explains. “Our network is going to be all fiber driven. There's no coax in it at all.”

The difference, Menhart says, comes down to upload speeds. “When Charter says they are offering 940+ mbps speeds, that's a variable rate. It’s asymmetrical. The rate they are quoting is their download speed, but their upload speed is only a tenth of that. So, their network is basically 1,000 by 100 [mbps]. With our fiber, it's symmetrical, so it will be 1,000 mbps by 1,000 mbps. If we do a 10-gig residential rate, that will be 10,000 mbps by 10,000 mbps. Fiber is able to support that, and that's the difference between a fully fiber network and an older hybrid or coax network.”

Menhart also notes that Charter Spectrum and other cable companies will typically start customers off at an introductory monthly rate and then increase that price in subsequent years. He expects TCLP’s fiber rates will be priced similarly to Spectrum’s gig internet service, but without the year-over-year increases.

While Morand acknowledges that Spectrum’s asymmetrical network means slower upload speeds, he doesn’t think most residential customers send or upload enough data for fiber to offer a distinct advantage. “If you look at it, the vast, vast, vast majority of residential web traffic is download,” he says. “Obviously, there are exceptions, but from a practical use standpoint, having gig upload speeds would be kind of like having a four-lane off-ramp for a four-lane highway.”

Advantages of gig-internet download speeds include near-instantaneous downloads of large files, higher-quality video streaming, faster internet browsing, and more reliability for networks with large numbers of users. Advantages of gig-internet upload speeds include swift data backup to the cloud and faster uploads for large audio or video files. Online gaming or video chat demand fast download and upload speeds.

Arends believes the benefits are enough to justify TCLP’s drive to bring fiber to northern Michigan, especially given the ever-growing role the internet plays in day-to-day life.

“What you are going to have as a community in the City of Traverse City is a highway to the future,” he says. “I believe that this is one of the most significant economic developments or infrastructure projects that this community has done in many, many decades. This is the future.”

Fiber Internet Coming Soon To Traverse City: When, Why, And Where?