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Good Fibes, part three: Volo and Peter Folk

From Good Fibes part one, and part two, we learned that UC2B, starting out as a non-profit geared to provide to underserved areas and Pavlov, a ISP delivering internet to primarily off-campus residential housing units, both started providing service around the same time a couple years ago. However, UC2B has only connected community anchor institutions (CAIs) and a few Urbana neighborhoods, and Pavlov, provides only to multiple dwelling units. Volo was the first ISP we have talked to that specializing in providing to single family homes.

A little about Volo

Peter Folk began Volo when he was still an undergraduate student in Portland, Oregon. Folk is from the area and was home on winter break from college when he began paving the way for what is now Volo. At this time (late 90s), wireless internet was the new “big thing”. The idea for Volo occurred to Peter when dreamt of providing wireless internet in cafés so that, “Students could be in a café, drinking a good coffee, and doing homework”. He approached Espresso Royale who agreed to offer wireless internet to its customer for $1, making Espresso Royale the first commercial establishment in C-U to receive wireless internet. But customers started to wise up to the wireless trend, and Peter’s novel idea of wireless cafes in C-U was starting to become more common. In 2001, Peter focused the company towards providing wireless in homes. A focus, which had great reception in town and has been growing since. Around 2007-2012, Peter started noticing his wifi connectivity experiencing interference from cordless phones and other wifi routers, and he started to transition towards fiber, connecting their first single family home around three years ago.

Unlike Comcast, Volo is not a tiered service — every Volo customer with the proper hardware, can access Volo gigabit fiber speeds. This means, as long as the home has an internet port, LAN port, and processor that handles gigabit, Volo will provide gigabit to the home for less than $30/month. Compare this to the $300 per month Comcast Gigabit Pro, with an astronomical $1,000 startup fee.

This idea of “everyone with the proper hardware can get fiber” seemed funny to me and very unlike the norm of money-hungry ISPs in Champaign-Urbana. When I asked Folk about his business moto, then the “fiber to all” mentality made more sense: 

“Utilities are there to provide services, it’s not about extracting the most money from customers. If you provide good services, over time, it’s a win-win for both parties. The point is not to make people think they are getting exclusive products, but to provide the best possible connections to the home. New technologies should not be a next-generation thing, they should be an ‘everybody’ thing. We try to stay on the cutting edge and fiber is a better way of delivering a service we already provide. I envision every home will have fiber in next ten years.”

Currently, Volo connects the neighborhood surrounding Blair Park in Urbana to fiber. Since laying the fiber network in 2007, connecting their first home around 2012-2013, Folk has seen strong and steady growth in fiber demands. In fact, the company has seen twice as many fiber customers as predicted in that area. Aside from connecting Blair Park area in Urbana, Volo has connections in the City of Thomasboro and plans to expand more in C-U as well as to other cities in Central Illinois. We can expect Volo coverage to steadily grow around town, as it currently boasts some of the best rates.

A vision of “fiber for everyone” in 10 years is a great vision, but for Champaign-Urbana, it seems that our quick-take to fiber is diminishing. Where we were once of the first and only cities to boast ultra-high speed internet, Champaign-Urbana is now one of many cities embracing the trend. And connected neighborhoods, while they are increasing, remain mainly in a few concentrated places in Urbana. While fiber is available from Comcast (albeit very expensive services) and via UC2B (you just have to wait nine years for your neighborhood to sign up) — there are still many, many neighborhoods without access. While there’s still a long way to go, Volo’s affordability makes them one of the better games in town.

We’ll have to see how the discussion goes down on Thursday in Downtown Urbana for the Fiber panel.

Peter Folk will be speaking on the Panel on Fiber Optic Internet Thursday, September 24th in Urbana’s Sipyard as at part of Pygmalion Festival TECH.

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