When it comes to choosing an internet service provider, most Americans have limited options — if any at all. The handful of major companies that dominate the telecommunications market have long been criticized for failing to invest in rural and low-income urban neighborhoods, even as some 42 million Americans lack a reliable connection.
The startup Underline, which focuses on community infrastructure, is now hoping to disrupt that industry by building open access fiber networks across 2,500 underserved communities. The company says its first full-scale deployment will break ground Tuesday in Colorado Springs, Colorado — where 10% of all households have no internet access.
In an open access model, a city or a private company like Underline builds and maintains the physical infrastructure, and invites multiple independent providers to run services on the network. The model is intended to make it easier for small and new companies to enter the market without facing the high costs of building their own network. The competition can then drive innovation and fast speeds at more affordable prices, giving consumers choice beyond what major corporations currently offer.
Underline’s project will allow consumers in Colorado Springs to choose from its four partner providers offering internet speeds of between 500 Mbps and 10 Gbps, along with other value added services. One of the providers, Stratus IQ, already operates in the city, while the other three are located elsewhere. For residents, the price ranges from $49 a month to $250 a month for different levels of service. For low-income families who qualify for the startup’s Opportunity program, the 500 Mbps plan will be available on a sliding scale of $15 to $30 a month.
Underline already has some paying customers from an earlier pilot program in Colorado Springs, but it will be two to three months before the broader public can take advantage of the service. They’ll first build the underground foundation of the network, and progressively expand it to neighborhoods, central business districts and schools over the next few years. If all goes as planned, Thompson says, the network will bring a competitive market, with smaller providers offering high-quality internet, to roughly 24,000 homes and 4,000 businesses and microbusinesses.
One benefit touted by Underline is that subscribers can change providers if the service no longer meets their needs. The switch can be done on their computer in a matter of just minutes, with no new hardware installation required. “It’s fundamental that consumer choice and competition actually get served all the way to the consumer’s desktop,” said Bob Thompson, CEO of Underline.
That ability comes from a technology known as software defined networking, which allows operators to control the network virtually rather than through physical changes to network servers. While many other cities are exploring wireless options, Thompson says that wireless technology still relies on robust fiber networks to move massive amounts of data. And as the fiber network expands to support “smart city” infrastructure, the technology allows for better security. Underline has assembled a consortium of infrastructure and cybersecurity partners, including the National Cybersecurity Center, which will advise the company with the buildout and security of the network.
Since the pandemic shut down schools, one of Colorado Springs’ largest school districts has relied on hotspots and Wi-Fi buses to bring its least-connected students into the virtual classrooms. The district also boosted its schools’ Wi-Fi signals so kids could use the internet in parking lots.
The idea of an open access network isn’t new; Stockholm built one of the world’s largest and longest-running open access fiber networks in the 1990s, and today it covers 90% of the city’s homes and businesses. It’s also used in Japan and France.
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