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Open-access fiber network promises to bring broadband to rural Nichols

Workers prepare to run fiber optic cables along a roadside. (Provided/Fiberspark)
Workers prepare to run fiber optic cables along a roadside. (Provided/Fiberspark)

Broadband internet access has been slow to reach rural communities, but the Town of Nichols in Tioga County is part of a new initiative to address the inequity; an open-access fiber network.

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It’s dubbed Nichols Fiber, and seems like it could close the gap and bring the town reliable internet service. Any internet service provider, or ISP, will be able to use the fiber to serve customers in Nichols.

Access to reliable, high-speed internet is an issue rural areas like Nichols have struggled with for years. The pandemic thrust the problem into the spotlight and led many to embrace broadband as a vital utility essential to economic development.

Large ISPs don’t build into rural areas with low population densities. The customer base isn’t large enough to meet their bottom line. Nichols has a population of under 2,300 people, and under 1,000 households.

The indifference has made some, like Nichols Councilperson Esther Wood, feel like the Southern Tier has been left behind. “We seem to be kind of forgotten up here. We're here and we'd like to be in the 21st century too.”

But now Wood is looking forward to seeing how a new approach can benefit her town.

The open access network is open to any Internet Service Provider, or ISP that wants to participate, getting rid of the high cost of running fiber-optic cable.

The idea is that letting any ISP use the network will let small companies compete with larger ones. The first provider to commit to serving Nichols is Fiberspark, a small Ithaca-based ISP, that currently just serves around 700 households.

Fiberspark, or any other company for that matter, won’t have to make the costly investment of building a fiber network to serve households in Nichols, which can cost up $30,000 a mile to build.

The network in Nichols is a test case — one of four projects happening under New York’s $1 billion ConnectALL initiative, which was launched in early January 2022 to expand broadband access in the state. The nonprofit, the Southern Tier Network, or STN, is in charge of building the fiber network.

The organization has been building a “middle mile” fiber network across the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes for years. Running cable in front of every home is a first for STN, and its CEO, Jeff Gasper, thinks that it doesn’t have to be the last if funding continues to come to the table.

“We can do what we're doing in Nichols, pretty much anywhere on our existing footprint,” said Gasper. “We've got a model now that we can cut and paste and do somewhere else.”