OpenCape Envisions Expansion of Fiber-Optic Network

By Sam Mintz

Posted Jul. 25, 2018

The nonprofit corporation OpenCape, along with its operating partner CapeNet, has already installed the backbone of a high-speed broadband network on Cape Cod. The 475 miles of fiber-optic cable across Southeastern Massachusetts supplies fast internet and other services to towns and major institutions such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

But adding smaller businesses and residences has remained a challenge, largely due to the expense of installing cable in areas without a high density of homes or businesses.

On Wednesday, OpenCape launched an online mapping initiative it hopes will reduce costs. Powered by a platform called CrowdFiber, OpenCape will collect location and other data from people who are interested in the service, then explore ways to connect them.

“It allows us to paint a portrait, town by town of the entire region, of where demand is,” said OpenCape Executive Director Steve Johnston. “The secret to creating fiber connection in communities is having people connected in density. I don’t have the luxury of building out and hooking up one house at a time. We need entire neighborhoods and communities.”

It costs at least $55,000 to lay a mile of "lateral" cable that extends out from the main fiber lines, according to Johnston, and these laterals would be necessary to connect any new locations to the backbone.

CrowdFiber was started four years ago by a Georgia telecommunications consulting firm called Civitium after the company helped electric utilities build a fiber network in north Georgia. They were overwhelmed with requests for service and didn’t know how to prioritize where to build, said Bailey White, a senior partner at Civitium, and they wanted to do it in a transparent and democratic way.

On the OpenCape version of CrowdFiber, users enter their address and contact info, take an internet speed test, and take a survey about internet service and products before registering.

“It’s just 2 minutes to shape your digital future,” Johnston said.

Johnston said OpenCape’s goal is to register 40 percent of residents in towns on the Cape before moving forward and approaching those towns about the demand. As of Saturday afternoon, 99 people had registered, and Johnston said OpenCape plans on using both social and traditional media campaigns to get more people to sign up.

“We just launched this two days ago, and we’re seeing a good intake without any promotion,” he said.

A $15,000 grant from the Cape Cod Economic Development Council — which also contributed $50,000 toward the construction of the trunk line of cable — helped pay for CrowdFiber.

“There’s nothing like a robust backbone, or internet network, to encourage entrepreneurialism,” said council member Felicia Penn.

Penn pointed to Chattanooga, Tennessee, which she said reinvented its image with a robust internet that supported telecommuting and businesses with a need for fast information technology.

“People want to live there, are flocking to live there. We’re hoping that this spurs some of that excitement, and hoping it will help retain young families, or attract young families. It’s a long-term return on investment that we’re looking for,” Penn said.

Johnston said he sees the network as a third bridge of sorts.

“When you think about everything that fiber-connected communities can accomplish, it would solve our issues. Reducing the wear and tear in infrastructure, reducing the number of people who have to go off Cape for work every day, and bringing jobs here.”