TRAVERSE CITY — More high-speed internet could be coming to Traverse City in 2019, but first Traverse City Light & Power needs to find someone to build and run an expanded fiber-optic network.
That search is nearing its end as utility staff plan visits to two finalist firms in January. They picked Fujitsu and Allo from a list of 10 would-be vendors who responded to the utility's request for proposals, TCL&P executive director Tim Arends said. He plans to recommend one or the other to utility board members by Jan. 22.
"Over the next two weeks, we're going to do site visits for installations that they have done or to their headquarters," he said.
The utility wants a firm to build and operate a fiber-optic network, expanding on its existing fiber connections it uses for its own purposes to bring high-speed internet and possibly other services across its electrical service area. Board members previously agreed to try a phased approach, so whichever company they pick would start with every customer served by the Hall Street substation.
Fiber-optic connections could reach most of downtown, along Eighth Street and down Woodmere Avenue, Arends said. They could also run to Boardman and Central neighborhood homes. That's about 2,200 electrical customers.
The winning vendor would be responsible for designing, building and operating that first phase, Arends said. They would also come up with advertising, promotions and a business plan that would predict construction cost payback times based on how many city residents and businesses adopt the service.
TCL&P would own the network, which the company would operate at first, Arends said. The utility could take over operational aspects as it adds employees.
"It only makes sense to have the company that does the engineering and design be accountable for making sure that it works," he said.
Utility Chief Information Officer Scott Menhart said the first phase has a good mix of commercial and residential properties. That'll give the utility an idea of how many of each type of customer buys the services and what to offer to entice more.
Internet connection speeds could be as fast as 10 gigabits per second, Menhart said — a cellphone on 4G LTE wireless service can download up to 12 megabits per second, or a fraction of the speed, according to Verizon Wireless. The utility could offer slower speeds for customers depending on their need, down to 50 megabit download and 50 megabit upload rates.
Other possibilities include offering voice-over-Internet Protocol phone service and television, Menhart said.
Menhart said he chose the two finalists by interviewing members of each company, weeding them out based on criteria like their level of experience and what kind of installations they've built before.
Construction on the network could begin in 2019 and wrap toward the end of the year, Menhart said. Potential customers could choose whether to connect their building to the network.
TCL&P first signaled it wanted a network builder and operator in May after raising the issue of whether to build a broadband network in February 2016, then studying the possibilities.
Arends said the move makes sense as high-speed internet gains in importance for economic growth. A high-speed connection for every home and business is becoming as crucial as electricity was when utilities strung wires across the state 100 years ago.
"We view it as a critical infrastructure as the streets are, and government certainly should be providing this if the private sector will not," he said.
Companies that responded to TCL&P request for proposals
(Bold indicates finalists)
MIchigan Broadband Services