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Akron partners on fiber-optic network, no cost to taxpayers, goal of high-speed internet for all

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Akron announced it's partnering with SiFi Networks to bring fiber internet access to residents and businesses.

Akron announced Monday it's partnering with SiFi Networks, a telecom company building open access fiber networks across the country, to build an underground fiber-optic network through the city.

Mayor Shammas Malik campaigned on bringing a fiber network to Akron, citing that internet connectivity is a barrier to workers and students in the city. His 100 day plan includes exploring partnerships with private providers and Summit County around affordable access to fiber, with the hope that high-speed internet will build a more worker-friendly community, attract young people and bolster the city's population, which has been declining for 50 years.

Akron will provide SiFi Networks with access to the right of ways for the project, with the goal of the company building a citywide fiber-optic network and affordable, high-quality internet access for residents, according to a press release from the city.

SiFi plans to invest $200 million to install, maintain and operate the underground fiber-optic network at no cost to the city, the press release stated. SiFi will also reimburse the city for costs associated with expediting reviews of permits during the project.

“In 2024, it is essential that every person in Akron has access to high-speed, affordable internet,” Malik said in a press release. “Through this partnership with SiFi, every resident and business in Akron will have access to fiber internet, and SiFi has agreed to work with us to subsidize rates."

SiFi plans to break ground on the project within a year, Akron Information Technology Director Darren Rozenek said.

“Then it’s about four years for the city to be done," he said.

Through SiFi's FiberCity Aid program, disadvantaged families will be able to receive 1gbps service at a subsidized rate, according to the city's press release. Rozenek doesn't know what prices will look like yet, he said.

“My expectation is it will be cheaper than what our current rates are," he said, "but we can’t say – I can’t say for sure what.”

Through SiFi's aid program, 10% of the city will be eligible for subsidized rates, Rozenek said.

The city further stated it is committed to bringing high-speed internet to residents at the lowest possible cost.

The project will also bring jobs to the city, Rozenek said. SiFi plans to hire locally for construction and maintenance of the network.

“Even during the construction, they use union work," he said. "They’re going to be hiring local while they’re doing it, so hopefully economically it also has a benefit that we can’t see yet.”

After the project is complete, SiFi plans to hire more than 80 local employees to maintain the network, Rozenek said.

During his campaign, Malik promised to commit to joining Summit Connects, a broadband network connecting the entire county to high-speed internet. Akron will continue to explore partnering with Summit Connects in the future, the press release stated.

"In our minds, we don't want to close that door," Rozenek said. "We want as much competition as we can in Akron to get the best price and the best service for the users."

This partnership isn't the end of the city trying to bridge the digital divide, Rozenek said.

"It's what I'd consider one pillar of many that we're going to put in," he said, "and we're going to try to find solutions to solve that digital divide and that digital inequity that Akron suffers from."

One idea is to provide more subsidized internet through SiFi.

"If there's a way for us to maybe reach out and get some private funding to get the community to rally around this, what if we could get that number to 20%?," he said.

SiFi is also bringing a citywide, high-speed fiber-optic network to Cleveland. Cleveland City Council approved the seven year, $500 million building plan last October, also at no cost to the city. In addition, SiFi is working with more than 50 cities to build fiber networks.

Updated: March 5, 2024 at 6:22 PM EST
This story has been updated to add additional information from the city about the network.
Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.