SALEM — Construction on a citywide fiber optic internet network is just months away, starting in neighborhoods along Highland Avenue, which will be among the first to get access to competition for Comcast’s Xfinity internet.
City leaders signed a contract this week with SiFi Networks — a New Jersey-based company — to create the infrastructure for a fiber optic network. SiFi will now build a network for homes, businesses and city government to get access to more internet service options. The $35 million cost to build the network will come out of SiFi’s pocket, at no cost to the city.
The company, doing business locally as Salem FiberCity, will begin construction this summer on its first of 25 zones across Salem, according to Matt Killen, the city’s chief information officer and IT director.
“The first zone, aptly named zone number one, is the lower part of the city along the Highland Avenue corridor,” Killen said. “The first thing they need to do is bring the fiber internet into the city up from Boston.”
The closest hub to Salem is in Lynn. Construction will start by bringing that infrastructure into Salem, with one of two major shed-like, fenced-off structures, at city-owned property by Salem High School. From there, the network will be expanded to each zone in the city, where a 4-foot metal box or cabinet will sit above-ground, according to Josh Turiel, the Ward 5 City Councilor and an IT business owner who helped run the years-long process to bring SiFi to Salem.
The City Council first signed a 30-year deal with SiFi in 2018 that allowed the company to be the network provider for the city and begin planning. This would finally offer competition to Comcast, as the only reliable high-speed internet option available in Salem. Permitting and construction was due to begin last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic kept many engineers from getting to City Hall, according to Killen.
“It just became entirely impractical to get off the ground last year,” he said. “The first zone of the city is currently undergoing permit review, and it’s hoped the permit will wrap up soon and construction could begin as early as the summer.”
From there, it won’t be long before homes near the Highland Avenue corridor start getting on the network.
“It’s roughly a two-year construction window, so they (SiFi) want to bring people on on a rolling basis as they move through each area of the city,” Killen said. “Their hope is to light people up, get them on the network as early as possible, so as soon as a zone is complete or near-complete, they’ll want to be bringing customers on.”
SiFi won’t be the ones selling internet service in Salem, however. The company will build the network, but it will then be up to other service providers to offer internet access to customers. That’s where SiFi will recoup the $35 million setup cost: By charging service providers to use the network, according to Killen.
The cost to end-users shouldn’t be too bad, according to Turiel. He said that in order for new service providers to compete with Comast, they’ll either need to be better or cheaper — or both.
“They have to be competitive with Comcast to get customers. Comcast doesn’t get kicked out except on an individual customer basis,” he said. “If you take the number of customers who are connected via internet today — Comcast and Verizon DSL — virtually every one of them is connected to one service or the other. If they (the SiFi network) pick up a third of business in Salem, that’s going to make money.”
One provider already building up its service is GigabitNow, a Seattle-based internet service that has launched a page to give Salem residents a chance to pre-register for service.
Actual construction of the new network involves “micro-trenching” in Salem’s roads, where a trench no more than about 2 inches wide and up to 18 inches deep will be dug to carry the fiber optic conduit, according to Killen. This won’t be much more inconvenient than street sweeping, he said — 6 feet of the road will be needed for installation, so no road closures are expected currently.
“You’re going to see basically a train of equipment, where the trench is going to be dug, the fiber conduit is going to be getting laid, the remediation material is going to be put down over the top, the trench is going to be sealed, and the fiber is going to be shot through using a high-speed air-gun, basically,” Killen said. “They can go a fairly good distance down the street each workday.”
In its announcement of the Salem deal, SiFi said cities and towns in the United States tend to not have “open access broadband” like those in European and Asian countries since “the exclusive ownership of broadband networks led to the creation of monopolies that dominate the telecommunications market, inflating prices and depriving consumers of choice.”
SiFi’s website lists several cities it is working with to establish fiber networks, with more than half of them in California. Like in Salem, the company has finished designing networks in Saratoga Springs, New York and East Hartford, Connecticut, the two cities closest to Salem with deals in place.
The company has already launched construction of a network in Fullerton, California, where a small portion of the city so far has access to fiber internet options.
“SiFi Networks has already identified more than 200 cities that could become FiberCities in the future and bring fiber to over 10 million households across the U.S.,” said SiFi CEO Ben Bawtree-Jobson. “We are excited about changing America’s telecommunications landscape and eliminating the digital divide wherever we build our FiberCities.”