A citywide high-speed fiber-to-the-home network could finally be coming to residents of Bloomington. That includes territories outside the municipal boundaries that are in the process of being annexed by the city.
In a news release issued late Tuesday morning, Bloomington announced that the city and Meridiam, an infrastructure development company, have signed a letter of intent for the firm to build and operate an open-access fiber network that would bring high-speed internet access to Bloomington.
Meridiam is based in Paris with offices worldwide, including one in New York.
Tuesday’s announcement comes four and a half years after Bloomington announced the end of its attempt to partner with Axia, a Canadian company, in an earlier effort to create a citywide fiber network.
The letter of intent between Bloomington and Meridiam will be followed by a completed full agreement by the end of the year, according to the news release. Construction of the network is supposed to start in 2022, according to Tuesday’s release.
On the letter of intent, the signatures for Meridiam and Bloomington are dated Aug. 26 and Aug. 27, respectively.
The news release says that the project will require no financial commitment from the city of Bloomington. Meridiam plans to invest $40 million to build the network, according to the news release. The LOI says the arrangement is to be pursued as a public-private partnership.
Fiber networks offer faster internet connections than those achievable with cable networks that rely on copper wires. The news release says that the Meridiam fiber network would offer “gigabit-class (and greater) broadband service.”
A speed of 1.2 gigabits per second is available only in the most expensive package offered by the cable provider Xfinity. Lower-speed packages start at 50 megabits per second.
Tuesday’s news release says that the fiber network will cover at least 85 percent of Bloomington residences, including the city’s low-income neighborhoods.
Part of Bloomington’s role in the project involves ensuring the new fiber network is consistent with the city’s digital equity goals. According to the news release, Bloomington and Meridiam are exploring a financial partnership to fund a program to improve access to the network for residences in low-income areas.
Director of Bloomington’s information technology services (ITS), Rick Dietz, told The B Square on Tuesday that Meridiam has the values of sustainability and equity “baked into their business.” Meridiam is a part of some United Nations sustainability and equity charters, according to Dietz.
Dietz said that Meridiam’s team led with digital equity when talks started with Bloomington. “They wanted to know where there were underserved and low-income areas, to ensure that those locations got attention early in the network design, and weren’t an afterthought,” Dietz said.
Dietz added, “That speaks to their alignment with our values in this community.” According to Meridiam’s website, it is a “benefit corporation” under French law.
After the agreement with Bloomington is in place, Meridiam will complete a detailed engineering analysis, to plan and design the build-out of the open-access fiber network, according to the release.
According to the news release, Bloomington has been looking for a partner that shares its commitment to digital equity as it develops, builds, and operates a “city-wide, financially feasible system, featuring open architecture to encourage its use by multiple providers.”
According to Tuesday’s news release, Meridiam will contract with “at least one internet service provider” to use the new fiber network.
Dietz told The B Square that in the initial phase of the project, Meridiam is looking to partner with a capable, nationally recognized internet service provider (ISP) that would be the primary residential provider on the network. The wording in the news release is not meant to exclude businesses, Dietz said. Meridiam is also looking to serve a business customer base, Dietz said.
Meridiam is also looking at Bloomington’s neighbor to the east, Columbus, as a place to put a fiber network, according to a late September report from The Republic. For the network that would include Columbus, Meridiam is working with the Bartholomew County government.
Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, is quoted in the release saying, “We are proud to lead and anchor what has become a regional broadband initiative reaching well beyond Bloomington.”
In the most recent community survey of Bloomington residents, two-thirds of respondents said citywide high-speed fiber for internet access is “essential” or “very important.” That’s consistent with the numbers from the previous surveys in 2019 and 2017.
In the northeast quadrant of the city, where a high percentage of Indiana University’s students live, 81 percent of survey respondents said high-speed fiber is “essential” or “very important.” That’s a statistically significant higher number than other quadrants, according to the survey report.
There’s not an explicit Indiana University connection to the fiber network project.
Bloomington has a high population of students in its community, many of whom live off campus and generally have higher bandwidth needs than a lot of others, Dietz pointed out. “So that makes the university a partner, if not directly, then indirectly, in a project like this,” Dietz added.
Dietz was Bloomington’s ITS director when the city worked with Axia in its unsuccessful attempt to bring a high-speed fiber network to Bloomington. Dietz told The B Square that Bloomington signed a letter of intent to partner with Axia, and the city was almost to the point of signing a final agreement.
But around that time, Axia was purchased, and the new ownership backed away from those US market segments the company had previously been considering, Dietz said. Relatively soon after that, Dietz added, Google Fiber pulled back on their initiatives, which had been very prominent up to that point. Dietz said Google’s pullback sent some “tremors” through the broadband community that impacted potential new investments
When the Trump administration took over, that chilled efforts by new providers, Dietz said, because they suspected that the FCC, from a regulatory standpoint, would be a lot more friendly to existing providers than to new providers. Despite that chill in the marketplace, Bloomington continued to explore options, Dietz said.
About the timeframe of Tuesday’s announcement, Dietz said, “This has been a priority for Mayor Hamilton, and by extension for me, since the beginning of his administration.” He added that it was talked about even before that.
Dietz said, “So yes, this is a very high priority initiative. We’ve put a lot of resources into it over the course of the last several years.”
Alluding to Bloomington’s courtship of Axia, which ended in early 2017, Dietz said, “We have been to the altar before.”
He added, “We feel pretty confident in [Meridiam]. And we’ll do all we can do to make this a success.”