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Who needs Google Fiber? Columbus privatizing unused bandwidth

Businesses and residents will have more access to high-speed broadband, and there might be fewer dropped calls downtown, under a deal Columbus City Council approved this week to privatize unused capacity in some 500 miles of city-owned fiber optic cable.

Connected Nation Exchange, which goes by CNX, will inventory and map the network before leasing access to telecommunications carriers and Internet service providers. The city pays nothing and gets 60 percent of lease revenue, which is to be used to add more cable and upgrade equipment to make the existing network faster. CNX gets the other 40 percent in revenue-sharing.

“Over the next 12 months you’ll start seeing the impact in terms of the quality of services available because of this initiative,” CNX founder and CEO Brian Mefford told me.

This and a similar deal in Nashville are the first public-private lease agreements in one of the 25 largest U.S. cities for Dallas-based CNX, a for-profit spinoff of nonprofit Connected Nation, which seeks to improve broadband access in underserved areas. CNX last month agreed to map Michigan’s broadband assets without the next step of leasing, and has other public-private leasing deals with rural areas and smaller cities.

“Our intent is to hold out Columbus as a model city for this approach,” said Mefford, who also founded Connected Nation and left as its CEO in 2013 to form CNX.

Mefford told me the company has not yet projected potential revenue because it hasn’t completed the map and assessed the speed and value of Columbus’ 500 miles of fiber, set up in a web-like network with multiple concentric rings around the city and a north-south trunk roughly following High Street.

The city installed fiber over the last decade to connect municipal buildings, including police and fire stations, mainly for secure and fast emergency communications. It doesn’t use all of the capacity. Some of the network has 100-gigabit speeds, and more of it could, Mefford said.

CNX holds itself out as a public-private alternative to all-private enterprises such as Google Fiber, which Google Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) has installed in Kansas City and other areas, with no sites yet chosen for Ohio.

One of the city’s objectives is to improve the reliability of its two-year-old public wireless network, which has some paid and some free access points. Carriers also can extend broadband service to more neighborhoods, he said, such as development hot spot Franklinton.

The initiative also could improve cellular networks that especially are becoming overwhelmed downtown, Mefford said. One way for the phone carriers to improve signals is to install more small antennas on buildings – which requires fiber.

CNX was one of two bidders on a request the city put out last May, according to the ordinance authorizing a two-year contract with three optional annual renewals.

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