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Michigan's First Fiber Community

Cities such as Chattanooga, Atlanta, and now Detroit, Michigan are becoming known as Gigabyte Cities, or Fiber Cities, thanks to their state-of-the-art fiber Internet connections. Whether owned by municipalities, in the case of Chattanooga, or by national ISPs like Google Fiber in Atlanta and others, these light-speed connections have put cities on the radar for tech entrepreneurs, investors, Fortune 500 companies, and homeowners looking for Internet speeds to keep up with work and entertainment. Thanks to local ISP Rocket Fiber, Detroit is now joining the roster of Fiber Cities, however, Detroit was not Michigan's first. That title goes to Sebewaing, Michigan, with a population of 1,800.

Sebewaing's fiber Internet system extends across approximately 20 miles of fiber optic cables and is owned by the municipal utility, Sebewaing Light and Water (SLW). SLW installed the fiber optic connections supporting fiber to the home (FTTH) in September of 2014.

Sebewaing had struggled to get fast, reliable service to the township for years. “No one would come here,” said Melaine McCoy, SLW Superintendent. “We decided we would do it on our own.”

Fiber Internet is also known as Gigabyte Internet for its capacity to transmit one gigabyte of data per second. A gigabyte of data equates to over 4,000 books, 600 web pages, and 250 mp3 audio files. Fiber Internet supports applications like live video conferencing, almost instantaneous movie downloads, seamless online gameplay, and unlocks new capabilities for hospitals, schools, governments, manufacturing companies, and many more.

While many cities with fiber Internet are subject to service charges set by a national ISP, SLW is a local utility and works in the best interests of residents. SLW was able to maintain control of the fiber system due in part to capabilities as an electrical utility, utilizing existing infrastructure to install fiber lines. “We had capital reserves that were set aside for this,” McCoy explained. “For a municipal electric utility, we're used to a long-term payback period, up to 20 years or more. We project [for fiber Internet] a seven to eight year payback.”

SLW's first customer turned on its fiber Internet near the end of 2014. Nearly a year later, Sebewaing can now assess what fiber means for a small town and provide a model for others to follow. Not only light-speed Internet, but also media attention, brings new investment to Fiber Cities. Though Sebewaing has not seen the new business that larger cities have—like the $900 million Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga—McCoy says it gives residents a reason to stay. “Without reliable broadband, all the talent leaves; all the young people leave. It's not necessarily true that 'if you build it, they will come,' but if you don't build it, they're going to leave.”