ARIZONA — Cable One says it will start construction on an additional, high-speed internet cable in June, a giant step toward speeding up Rim Country’s sluggish internet and eliminating life-threatening, business-crunching outages.
Cable One executives recently announced the roughly $14 million plan in Payson. The phased construction would connect Payson to Show Low before the end of this year and then finish the loop to Phoenix by the end of 2020.
“It’s our honest intention to start construction in June,” said Cable One General Manager Don Conrad.
The plan will bring a second fiber optic cable to Payson, but won’t replace the existing, much slower cable owned by CenturyLink. The new cable won’t initially connect to the existing CenturyLink line, which has failed repeatedly in recent years — leading to losses for businesses and at least one death.
Cell phone companies, CenturyLink and the separate Suddenlink will have to contract with Cable One once the new connection arrives to provide reliable, redundant, high-speed internet to the whole community. The new cable will have speeds 200 to 1,000 times faster than the current connections, which are based on copper wire rather than fiber optics.
Cable One also announced it has won a contract under the federal E-rate program to connect schools and libraries to the new, high-speed trunk line. This will bring the high-capacity cable to communities like Pine, Young and the Tonto Basin, with funding provided by the federal government. Those lines will connect directly to schools and libraries, but not to businesses or homes. However, other companies could contract to then deliver that signal for the “last mile.”
Former Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, now head of the MHA Foundation, said “a solution to this longstanding problem is coming within a few months. So don’t sign a contract to lock yourself into yesterday’s technology,” he urged businesses.
“It’s a good plan and a good step in the right direction,” said Greg Friestad, a former cable company engineer and designer who has worked for the past two years on a committee dedicated to improving broadband service in the region.
He noted that the plan won’t in the short term provide high-speed, redundant internet to Rim Country. Cable One will offer service to businesses along the route of the cable, not to homeowners. Current state law precludes the company from offering service to homeowners and businesses further from the cable now supplied by either CenturyLink or Suddenlink.
Still, the arrival of the cable this year and the extension to Phoenix next year could lay the groundwork for the solution to the region’s internet woes. The full solution will still depend on whether CenturyLink, Suddenlink and cell phone companies like Verizon decide to contract for service from the new cable. CenturyLink would also have to connect its cable coming from Camp Verde to the new line to provide redundant service for the whole area.
The financing of the proposal remains in flux, with backers hoping for additional contributions and grants from the state. However, Cable One General Manager Aimee Pfannenstiel said, “We’re past the ‘whether we’re going to do it or not.’ We’re doing it.”
A still-anonymous donor has pledged up to $5 million to offset as much as one-third of the cost of construction. That guarantee prompted Cable One to move forward with a plan more than two years in the making.
Moreover, Gov. Doug Ducey has asked for $3 million in the current state budget to help rural areas improve broadband service. The Legislature could add additional funds, said Arizona Commerce Authority Senior Vice President Keith Watkins, who attended the session.
“Kudos to everybody for not giving up,” Watkins told the group of about 30 top elected officials and advocates, which included three members of the Payson Council, two members of the Gila County Board of Supervisors, Evans and other officials from MHA Foundation and assorted other officials and advocates.
“And thanks to Cable One for being willing to do this,” Watkins added.
Conrad said the project will unfold in three phases.
Phase 1 will string a line mostly on existing Arizona Public Service poles and right-of-way some 82 miles from Show Low to Payson at an estimated cost of $6 million. This line will bring the 2 gigabyte cable to Payson. It will also help complete a service loop that will prevent the White Mountains from continuing to suffer prolonged outages.
Phase 2 will involve stringing about 8 miles of cable through Payson, at a cost of roughly $70,000 per mile. Cable One will bear the entire cost of that phase, since it will then be able to serve customers in Payson.
Phase 3 will cost about $8 million to connect Payson to a substation in Phoenix. Cable One hopes to line up all the permits and additional funding for that final stretch between now and the end of the year, so the contractors on Phases 1 and 2 can just keep working. Phase 3 will also cover about 82 miles, but would likely involve a lot of trenching in solid rock or a deal with APS to attach a special line to existing electrical transmission towers. This would represent the most expensive option, but would probably take less time and provide more protection for the cable, according to APS representatives who also attended.
Conrad said it will take the company at least five years to recover its upfront investment, but that the company believes in Payson’s future. “I look at the growth of the community, the economy health of the community and then you go from there. Payson’s a great little community and there’s a lot of upside.”
The company also hopes the state Legislature will adopt new rules for the regulation of internet service. Currently, companies like CenturyLink have a franchise that grants them the right to provide internet service, often with contracts with other companies like Suddenlink to connect individual homes to the trunk line.
A proposed overhaul would allow competing companies to provide service statewide. This could lower service costs in urban areas while providing incentives to upgrade services in underserved rural areas.
The plan still involves a lot of moving parts, permits, financing questions and technological challenges.
But as Payson’s Economic Development Specialist Bobby Davis commented, “We need to get the internet here so we can create better paying jobs and support the economy.”
Mac Feezor, who has worked on the committee lobbying for improved service for the past two years, said “as much as you can ever say something’s a done deal, this is a done deal.”