Each revolution starts with an idea. In the world of tech, there are industry shifts that innovate on existing technology, there are evolutionary changes that take something in existence and make it better. And then there is a shift so profound, so groundbreaking, so revolutionary that it will change not only how things are currently done, but open the way for things that are beyond what we can currently imagine. Like the telephone in the beginning of the last century, or the internet in the late 80s, like the switch from dial-up to DSL to Wi-Fi, Colter Lovette of OpenOptic is set to revolutionize the way we connect to one another. Growing up in the Valley and now a local tech entrepreneur, Colter has designed a fiber based software that will bring end-users and fiber infrastructure together in a whole new way. His company, OpenOptic, looks to place the power of data connection and choice into the hands of the people.
Fiber is the new conversation in the world of internet connectivity. The question becomes how to implement the switch from current technology. It will take all of the players working together to bring fiber to each household in such a way that we don’t simply go from one monopoly to another, gaining little over where things stand
Right now, the internet service provider (ISP) has a monopoly on the way data reaches you, and the way you can manipulate it for every aspect of your life; education, business and entertainment. Imagine a two lane road from the internet to your house. One of a handful of companies owns that two-lane road and therefore controls the flow of data to and from you. You are stuck using it. If you want to change providers, you have to build a new two-lane road, bearing the entire cost of building it, but even then that new provider now owns that new road. They may or may not be better. Add to this the fact that others are sharing the road, increasing traffic and slowing flow speeds, and still others may be parked along it, trying to intercept what you are sending or receiving for nefarious purposes.
“We are conceiving of a whole new reality,” says Colter. “This is about the end user gaining control over their own data flow. The public needs to own the fiber. By partnering with municipalities, OpenOptic aids in building a public fiber network. "We survey an area of proposed build-out and run some numbers that tell us how many people will begin using the new fiber on day one. We then budget the construction around those elected users that will translate into a per-subscriber monthly build fee of less than $15 a month." Users that choose to switch later will enjoy the same low-cost monthly build fee, but will have an initial install fee as well. The key here is that the fiber is, and remains, publically owned.
In other municipalities, there has been an attempt to share the construction costs with existing ISP providers like Charter and Century Link. “The trouble is that you now have a new monopoly with fiber instead of DSL. The city or county is paying with taxpayer dollars, and there is no choice for the end user,” Colter explains. “The taxpayers have a huge upfront cost and are left no better off, stuck in long-term leases to a single provider.” None of these test markets have won as a result of ‘public-private partnerships’ putting in fiber. What Colter envisions is a paradigm shift in the way fiber is owned and operated, and therefore opens the door to innovations in the way that it’s used.
Rather than committing to building out the fiber infrastructure all at once, and choosing one company to move it forward, perpetuating the monopoly and saddling the city with a huge bill upfront, OpenOptic plans to take small areas, build them out, learn from the process, and then tackle the next area.
“We’ve tentatively divided the City of Grand Junction into 12 zones,” says Colter. “Each zone is about one square mile with around 2,500 residences. We would like to build one zone every six months, so we’d have fiber throughout the entire city in six years. The key here is learning as we go and allowing the public to decide which areas should be a priority.” Zone 1 is proposed to be downtown, from 1st Street to 12th Street, Ute to North Ave. Zone 2 is yet to be determined and will depend on clusters of early opt-in premises.
But it gets better than just intelligent construction. Once it’s built and because the fiber is publically owned, OpenOptic will enable every user of that fiber to control every aspect of it with wonderful simplicity. Imagine if you could connect directly to your bank or school without having to mix into the data flow that is the internet now. Or you could link your home office to the main office for a dedicated, secure connection. Even take it a step further and also add a second internet service just for the home office, isolating your work from those bandwidth-hungry children. To put it in Colter’s words: “Current internet providers have a very manual way of creating links like this today, but it costs several hundred dollars a month and takes forever for them to do it. OpenOptic makes setting up these connections a 30-second occasion at a month's cost that rivals your daily lunch. We take all the power of fiber infrastructure and puts its capability into a single dashboard that everyone can use with amazing ease; it's literally click, create and go.“
With all this power comes the need for capacity capable enough to handle it. Let’s take a look back to the beginning of the last century; telephones were just becoming commonplace. At first, most people had a party line. You could pick up the phone and call anyone, but your neighbors could lift the handset in their house and listen in — just like hackers or even ISP's themselves can “sniff” data from the stream that flows into and out of your home now. If you wanted to make a call, but Mrs. Thompson up the street was on the phone, you had to wait. In the same way, you now share bandwidth with your neighbors. While you pay for a certain "up-to" speed when they convince you to sign up for their service, in reality, it is much different than advertised. If I am streaming a video, and the neighbor is streaming one too, we will have to share that bandwidth. Now multiply that by all the people on Netflix in my area. I am on a party line. With OpenOptic’s platform, it’s as if I get my own phone line. I have a dedicated fiber connection to my house and my house alone. I have that full gigabyte all to myself. I, as a member of the public, own the data flow.
“So the city owns the fiber, but this is where it gets really interesting.” Colter leans forward, pauses for a dramatic moment, and says, "Once construction finishes, this is where the real value of OpenOptic comes in: Providing software that creates an easy-to-use control panel and service store for the user." This store means instant access to several different service providers at the same time. Users can switch between them in seconds with the ease that likens buying an app in a popular App Store on smartphones. "We think what OpenOptic provides will mean a more diverse field of service providers. Even local companies can create services on the platform with sincere simplicity, inciting competition that is levied at customer service instead of static monopolistic market share." The idea that my ISP would no longer have me over a barrel is worth that $15 per month, and so is mitigating the fights between my kids about who is taking up too much Wi-Fi (when it’s actually all the neighbors added together that’s slowing things down). “The cost of the service will be far less than it is now,” Colter says. “Competition will keep it that way.”
The city is set to spend on this fiber network project over the next few years one way or another. According to the City Councilman Rick Taggert, each major road construction project planned for the next three years includes laying fiber within the scope of the work. “They are spending the money already,” says Colter, “it’s important that we structure it so that it’s spent with the public owning that fiber, but also just as important, an easy way for everyone to control and use it.”
But there is more at stake here than just internet connectivity. “We don’t know what could happen once we have fiber available. There are applications that we can’t even conceive of now,” Colter says. Put yourself in 1940, with a telephone in your hand. Would it ever occur to you that information could be sent along the same line as a voice? Someone conceived of that because the phone existed. Faxes were invented. From there someone conceived of a wireless phone — we got the enormous brick-like car phones of the 80s, then a cell phone, just a few years later. “This is a platform for innovation,” Colter insists. “OpenOptic is about connections, not just internet. We make connections easy and that kind of power in that kind of form could change the world around us.”
As the city works on ideas to make fiber a reality, each of us can make our voice heard. By opting-in, we can increase the property value of our home or business. “It’s about a 3.1% increase in value if fiber runs to the premise,” says Colter, citing a study by Analysis Group discussing the increase in GDP in communities that have fiber gigabit broadband. “Basically, property owners will realize this increase in value as soon as the fiber to their premise is lit,” he adds.
“We will have a demo lab at a few different places each time we build an area so people can come see what it would be like to use OpenOptic,” says Colter. “It’s going to be easy enough for our grandmothers to use, but have the possibilities for future scalability.” While Colter is excited about the company he has founded to operate as an interface for end users and ISPs, his primary concern is to make sure that this publically owned infrastructure resource is available to anyone with an innovative idea and the willingness to put it into motion.