West Bloomfield Township intends to eliminate the need for a service currently provided by Comcast by building its own fiber network.

West Bloomfield Township intends to eliminate the need for a service currently provided by Comcast by building its own fiber network.

Photo provided by Harry Palmer

West Bloomfield prepares to take ownership of fiber network

By: Mark Vest | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published August 20, 2020


WEST BLOOMFIELD — Between now and October, some West Bloomfield residents may notice some digging going on near their homes.

The West Bloomfield Township fiber ring project has already begun and is expected to go through October.

The township is installing a new fiber optic ring to replace an existing fiber network.

According to Harry Palmer, who is the director of information systems for West Bloomfield, the “primary purpose is connectivity of township buildings to one another.”

Optical fiber is used to transmit telephone signals, internet communication and cable television signals.

Comcast converted the previous network from a free, unmanaged fiber network to a paid service, so the township expects to save money in the long run by owning its own network.

The work will take place in front of some homes in the right-of-way area but not directly on the property of residents, according to township Supervisor Steven Kaplan.

The work will involve directional drilling underground.

Palmer said it’s going to “go across part of Maple, a little bit of Middlebelt, a little bit of Commerce between the lakes, up in the northeastern section and on the trail, the walking trail a little bit, up in the northeast section.”

The bulk of the work is expected to take place on main roads.

Kaplan said the township previously had a “long-standing” relationship with Comcast, until “one day” the township was informed the service would no longer be free of charge.

According to Dave Albery, who is the executive director of the Greater West Bloomfield Cable Communications Commission, which connects through the township’s network, it had been a free service since 2003 or 2004.

Despite being on the township’s property, Kaplan said, Comcast has the easement right.

He said there was litigation in federal court over the issue, with the township filing a lawsuit against Comcast in 2015.

After a settlement was reached in 2017, the township now has until October of this year to build its own network before Comcast begins to charge $131,000 per year for a five-year period.

“At the end of that five years, there’s no guarantees what the price would be,” Palmer said. “We are certain the price would go extremely higher after that. … If it would (have) been a long-term contract, that’d be one thing, but it’s only a five-year span.”

Kaplan is pleased with the ownership this provides for the township.

“We can’t be vulnerable to the whims of Comcast,” he said. “We need to own this.”

Despite commenting that “there’s no great savings in everything that we’re doing,” Palmer has contemplated some of the perks of ownership.

“We’re building it with extra capacity; it’ll have extra fibers in it and extra conduit,” he said. “If we were renting or paying for bandwidth, the extra conduits or extra fiber, that benefit would go to the company that’s providing that service. They could provide more communications for someone else with that extra capacity. With us having it, if we need more capacity in the future, we don’t pay more, we already have it. … There’s no huge cost savings anywhere. We’re just trying to make sure that we’re being (the) best stewards of our money as we spend it today and keep (the) price down in the future.”

Albery said the network the township is in the process of building is “much superior” to the current one.

“It’s superior in design, superior in construction; more of it is underground and conduit, and it has a loop,” Albery said. “So if any one location on this network loses service, it just gets the service coming the other way. So a cut in one place isn’t (going to) disrupt anybody, whereas with the current network, the Comcast one, a cut in one place means no service and no use of the network until somebody gets out and repairs the cut.”

Albery considers building its own network to be a “great investment” for the township.

“It’s much better to own anything than to use somebody else’s, because, No. 1, you got to design it the way you want it; you know what your needs are, and No. 2, nobody else can control it — you own it. It’s yours,” he said.

From Palmer’s perspective, public safety is another advantage of the township having its own fiber network.

“What the new system does is, it lights in the fire station, and they’re either blue or red lights depending on if it’s a medical emergency or if it’s a fire, and then the computer voice very clearly reads out what the exact emergency is,” Palmer said. “These kind of enhancements happen because of the fiber-optic network that we’re working on.”

Network connectivity is for township facilities only.

“This doesn’t give any direct connectivity to any residents,” Palmer said. “None of this is connecting anybody’s home to the internet or anything like that.”

Palmer anticipates the cost of the project to be roughly $2.5 million.