TRAVERSE CITY — Customers are signing up for Traverse City Light & Power Fiber internet service, and more could respond to an advertising push — and pandemic-driven need.
Scott Menhart, TCL&P chief information technology officer, said the high-speed internet service has 88 active users, with 17 ready to join once connected and 64 signed up and waiting.
“There’s a fair amount of customers waiting to get service, so we’re going through those as quickly as possible to prioritize them and get them going,” he said.
Those active and prospective users represent about one-third of the 400 that Fujitsu Network Communications estimated TCL&P would need to both turn a profit and pay back an inter-fund loan to build the network’s first phase over five years, Menhart said.
He’s encouraged by how many have signed up roughly six weeks into the network’s launch, and is expecting even more after sending 1,100 post cards and a door-to-door campaign to notify residential customers.
Early advertising efforts included several dozen mailers and a social media campaign that only reached TCL&P account followers, Menhart said. Early demand could be a result of the buzz around the city-owned utility’s fiber network.
The pandemic also could be playing a role, as more people need high-speed internet to work and learn from home, Menhart said.
On the other hand, it could be driving down commercial demand, he said. Sign-ups for businesses have been slower, with 22 so far.
“It doesn’t help that most of the businesses are either shutting down or has a limited capacity they’re working on, so probably the last thing they’re thinking about is internet connections,” he said.
Another factor could be construction, as work on building and testing the network just wrapped in a heavily commercial area, Menhart said. Nor has TCL&P started a marketing campaign to target commercial users.
The first phase, which runs past about 2,000 TCL&P customers in and near the downtown, just wrapped and work is underway on an addition to potentially serve about 1,000 more in a residential neighborhood southwest of downtown, Menhart said. That’ll continue through the winter after contractors hustled to beat a Nov. 15 cutoff for underground work in city-owned rights-of-way — much of the work there involves stringing fiber on poles, as previously reported.
Utility board members approved a $3,309,426.90 bid with Fujitsu Network Communications to build the network, and around $849,000 to run and maintain it, as previously reported. City commissioners then agreed to lend $800,000 more in city economic development funds for the expansion.
Meanwhile, Great Lakes Energy Cooperative is seeing some early success with its Truestream Fiber broadband internet service, co-op Manager of Communications and Marketing Lacey Matthews said.
Service is available in townships around Charlevoix and Petoskey, and north of Harbor Springs, while customers are being connected in the area around Boyne City, according to the co-op’s map. Construction has begun in part of Bellaire and an area north of the village up to Charlevoix city limits — the network skirts some cities while covering several villages.
The network has nearly 5,000 customers, with the co-op meeting its goal for 2020 six months into the year, Matthews said.
The program started in 2018 as a pilot near Petoskey, Matthews said. It was the most difficult terrain, so success there would show that it could work in other areas.
Great Lakes Energy launched Truestream because high-speed internet is following a similar development pattern as electricity, Matthews said.
“Basically in the 1940s, large energy companies were going into urban areas and connecting urban areas, but weren’t connecting rural areas, so farmers kind of banded together and built their own infrastructure to have the next essential utility,” she said.
Now, high-speed internet is the next essential utility, and many Great Lakes Energy customers have only dial-up internet or no access at all, Matthews said.
She agreed the pandemic’s made the need more pressing, adding that more work-from-home opportunities in the region could boost the economy.
The co-op has plans for more construction in 2021, Matthews said, and maps show it’s gauging interest across its entire service area.
That’s split in two, and the northern part is roughly bound by Fife Lake to the southwest, an area west of Mio to the southeast and Mackinaw City to the north, maps show — it covers all of Antrim and most of Kalkaska counties.
Great Lakes Energy also serves Beaver Island, and is weighing options for bringing high-speed internet there as well, Matthews said.