Summary:

Rural wireless provider C Spire is taking a page from Google and announcing a contest to offer a gigabit fiber-to-the-home network for a Mississippi town. It’s not as odd as you might think.

Regional mobile operator C Spire has announced a Google-like plan to deliver fiber to the home to a community in its Mississippi service area. The company, which serves predominantly rural customers in the Southeast, will branch into the wireline business with its gigabit network plans — and it will do so in a way similar to Google, when it launched a competition in 2010 to bring fiber to a city in the U.S.

Such a foray into wireline isn’t too crazy for C Spire. Wireless operators have backhaul networks connecting their cell towers to the internet at large — either owned or leased from a company like AT&T or Verizon. For instance, Sprint has a large wholesale wireline network, but doesn’t serve last mile consumers on its network. C Spire has a sister company called Telepak Network that owns the fiber backbone that provides C Spire’s backhaul.

The C Spire site says:

C Spire has invested more than $1 billion in network infrastructure improvements since 2003 – adding 536 new cell sites to its high-speed wireless broadband network. With 1,840 total cell sites in operation and access to 3,390 route miles of high-capacity network fiber through its sister company, Telepak Networks Inc., C Spire has one of the industry’s most powerful and fastest mobile broadband networks.

So, C Spire’s ambitions at broadband access might seem odd, but they’re not unprecedented. It also says a lot about the current state of the wireless business, where rural carriers are feeling the squeeze from their larger rivals, that C Spire is branching into consumer and business wireline broadband — with a network that would undercut its telco rivals on speed and perhaps cost.

Given that the larger telcos have largely given up on serving rural customers, and that the digital divide created by their apparent disinterest could put the economic hurt on those towns, this might be a savvy business move  if C Spire can ensure a rapid take rate by potential subscribers and a build-out that keeps costs down.

Since C Spire is following the Google model by getting towns to apply to become fiber recipients, it might be able to do this for a reasonable investment. I’ve written how Google used social engineering to cut down on the cost of installing fiber, which is one of the biggest chunks of the overall investment in a fiber-to-the-home build. For its part, C Spire is asking interested towns to submit proposals by October 20 and is heavily encouraging enthusiasm and timing. It says in its release:

C Spire will be accepting applications from neighborhoods, towns and cities in Mississippi that have a passion for innovation and the desire to make their communities better. The communities that want it the most, and move quickest, will get it first.

While this may be the secret to a rapid and cheaper deployment of fiber, it’s also a potential worrisome trend for those in poorer areas where residents aren’t keen to embrace broadband — much less gigabit networks. One of the reasons Google was able to move so quickly with its deployment is that it didn’t have to abide by municipal rules that ensure broadband networks went to all areas of town, not just wealthy ones.

So far, Google has built out its network in most areas of Kansas City, but it’s a trend to watch as this competition-based deployment of gigabit networks continues. As for C Spire, it says it hopes to offer the service at a “competitive price” to both consumers and businesses. It also plans a TV and voice service in additional to a symmetrical gigabit broadband service.

Kevin Fitchard contributed to this report.

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