SiFi Networks, which funds, builds and operates community-wide fiber optic networks, may be on its way to Farmington and Farmington Hills.

SiFi Networks, which funds, builds and operates community-wide fiber optic networks, may be on its way to Farmington and Farmington Hills.

Photo provided by SiFi Networks

Farmington/Hills partner to try to provide more internet service options

By: Mark Vest, Mary Genson | Farmington Press | Published May 8, 2023

FARMINGTON/FARMINGTON HILLS — Officials in Farmington and Farmington Hills are hopeful that a partnership between the two cities will result in a reduction in internet bills for local residents and businesses.

Approximately five years ago, the two cities formed a municipal broadband task force to study internet services and options.

After the research process had begun, SiFi Networks reached out with an idea that got the task force’s attention.

SiFi Networks, a privately owned telecom company based in New Jersey, funds, builds and operates community-wide fiber optic networks across the country.

“Our 10 gig enabled fiber networks deliver digitally connected and sustainable cities while closing the digital divide,” SiFi’s site states.

Farmington Mayor Pro Tem Joe LaRussa is part of the broadband committee that Farmington and Farmington Hills formed.

“The two cities formed a municipal broadband task force, and that task force did a lot of homework,” LaRussa said. “And then once we presented our homework to the two (city) councils, the councils started deliberating on how to fund a buildout. That’s when SiFi presented themselves and said, ‘We’ve been monitoring what you’re doing.’ … They presented themselves around about 2021.”

LaRussa said that the aspiration is to provide neutral infrastructure in which multiple providers can compete.

“SiFi is the private partner that presented themselves to the two cities as the source of funding, to actually build out the network,” he said. “So the roads, or the pipeline, will be SiFi’s. They’re gonna privately invest in the two cities to build out all that fiber optic cable. They won’t necessarily provide internet service. They will own the infrastructure, and then invite internet service providers to use their fiber to provide service to businesses and residents.”

Spectrum is currently the primary internet service provider in Farmington and Farmington Hills.

SiFi could shake things up for residents and businesses looking for more options.

“They are putting in the entire system, paid for by them, so this will not cost our taxpayers any money at all,” Farmington Hills Mayor Vicki Barnett said. “It is a broadband system, high-speed, that will be deployed across all parts of Farmington and Farmington Hills to provide an alternative source for our citizens who are looking for competitive alternatives to Spectrum, and we’re very excited about that. We’re one of the few municipalities in the state putting in our own broadband system, and I believe the only one in the state that is putting in a broadband system that is not funded by taxpayer dollars.”

Barnett said that the project will cost SiFi about $135 million.

The expectation is for SiFi to own the infrastructure and allow other internet service providers to rent from them, which is where their revenue would come from.

Farmington Hills City Council member Valerie Knol discussed how that scenario can benefit residents.

“It would be competition in service providers, and competition could bring increased reliability and lower prices,” she said.

LaRussa shared what kind of difference this could make for residents and businesses.

“What we’ve seen in other communities where SiFi’s gone in is the price of a 100 gigabit symmetric service has … cut their bill in half, right off the bat,” he said. “And for lower speed, it’s even cheaper. So what we’ve seen from SiFi’s own projects in other communities is that the cost of internet is cut in half.”

Bills for service would be paid to whatever internet service provider residents and businesses choose to go with, like normal. According to LaRussa, SiFi has a community outreach program and will communicate to residents once permits are approved and construction has started.

LaRussa explained how the construction process would work.

“The proposal from SiFi was to use a construction technique that they have used successfully in other cities, both in more southern latitudes as well as northern latitudes,” he said. “Micro-trenching is what they call it — digging a 12- to 18-inch trench in the roadway and burying the fiber optic. Because we’re in a northern latitude and working on our roads a lot, we asked them to do it behind the curb, in the softscape of the right of ways.”

LaRussa shared more details about the potential project.

“They have a plan to go into different neighborhoods at the same time, but they want to do it as one single project in one season,” he said. “So they want to put multiple crews in the cities to build out the network, kind of in one shot. They don’t want this to take a huge amount of time, so their intent is to deploy multiple crews with multiple permits to get the construction done as quickly as possible.”

LaRussa said that the planning is “pretty much” complete and that SiFi has brought construction plans forward.

He discussed where things currently stand.

“What we are working on right now is we’re communicating with the Road Commission for Oakland County and (the Michigan Department of Transportation), because as you might expect, some of the roads in Farmington and Farmington Hills are in fact county roads and state trunk lines, like Grand River. So we do need to coordinate this activity with the Road Commission and MDOT, and once we get their approvals for the permits to work on their roads, SiFi can start construction.”

Although Craig Bryson, who is the senior communications manager for the Road Commission for Oakland County, said he would assume approval will come, he detailed the primary concerns.

“These days there’s a lot of stuff in the right of way, between cable television lines, phone lines, electric lines, sewer lines — all the other utilities that are out there,” Bryson said. “So we just want to make sure we’re not stacking utilities on top of each other, that they’re accessible, that we know where they are, so that if we need to dig up something on the side of the road … we know where it is and that we’re not causing a problem for other utilities that are already there — that kind of thing.”

Bryson said that Farmington and Farmington Hills are great partners and that it is just a matter of working through the details.

Knol shared her perspective as to the importance of getting the project completed.

“Internet speeds, availability and access of internet to everyone — not just access, but reliable, efficient internet at reasonable prices — it’s important,” she said. “I mean, you really can’t work nowadays without internet. You can’t do much of anything without internet.”

LaRussa discussed any potential financial benefit that may come as a result of SiFi bringing its services to Farmington and Farmington Hills.

“The only revenue that the city will receive is fees for service for permitting and the right of way,” he said. “So if SiFi ever needs to come back around and do anything else in the right of way to amplify or upgrade their network, we would get fees for those permits that they have to pull — the construction permits for working in the city limits. There is no revenue component for the city for the fiber optic network itself.”

Farmington Hills City Manager Gary Mekjian shared details about a potential timeframe for SiFi to begin construction.

“I’m hoping that the construction starts by the end of the calendar year,” Mekjian said. “It’s really up to the company, SiFi, to figure out what that schedule looks like, but those are our best hopes, is that by the end of the calendar year we start to see some movement on the construction.”

Once construction begins, Mekjian estimated that it will be a two- to three-year buildout.

As far as LaRussa is concerned, there are multiple ways that the project can benefit Farmington and Farmington Hills.

“The thing for me is nobody’s going to be using less internet five years from now, so to get this kind of project in place now and to be able to help residents with affordable and high-speed internet access in an age where we’re doing even more remotely — I mean, this is a superb value that we’re able to bring, with SiFi’s help, to the residents and businesses, and we’re really seeing it as an economic development tool to attract more businesses and attract more residents,” he said. “And what we’ve seen is that where you have good, solid internet infrastructure and service, property values rise — it’s (a) more desirable community to live in. So, we really view this as an overall economic development incentive for the city, so I’m excited about the positive impacts that are gonna come.”