Flume says cities overflowing with fiber but accessibility lags

Flume, a New York City-based fiber provider, has made strides over the past couple of years offering gigabit service to lower-income households. But there are still hurdles in place hindering broadband accessibility, according to Flume co-founders Brandon Gibson and Prashanth Vijay.

The FCC last week introduced the first draft of its broadband map, providing U.S. residents an in-depth look on coverage across the country. In an interview with Fierce, Gibson and Vijay acknowledged the map is not only a step in the right direction for closing the digital divide, but it can also help tackle the issue of broadband accessibility.

“Just because it’s available doesn’t mean it’s accessible,” Gibson said, noting that while large cities like New York have plenty of internet options, “a lot of New Yorkers, one in four, don’t have access.”

Infrastructure is a key reason for lack of access, added Vijay, who started out in telecom as an engineer at Verizon Fios.

“In the U.S., each ISP has their own infrastructure,” he said. “I live in Brooklyn and every building might have seven or eight provider cables out in front of it, and only one is willing to build into your building.”

This in turn creates a “dual problem” of cities having overfilled poles and conduit while residents aren’t getting the broadband they need. Vijay hopes the new FCC map will identify those discrepancies, rather than just provide a broad generalization of which ISPs are servicing an area.

“You could have one service available across the street or at the building next door, but not in the building right across from it,” he explained. “So, the granularity down to per address and the speed at each address, I think that’s what we’re really interested in.”

The additional data will also help Flume decide where to expand its coverage or, depending on the market, if it makes sense to partner with another provider.

“We’re not going to build somewhere that has a really good cheap fiber option,” said Vijay. “It’s a good way to share where we are available and if other folks want to look at that and partner with us, that’s maybe a good secondary impact of the map.”

Flume first turned up service in 2020 in New York City, using New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) as an anchor partner to provide high-speed internet to roughly 600,000 low-income residents. Gibson noted Flume facilitated deployment by tapping into the city’s unused fiber that was already laid onto the ground for commercial and cell tower purposes.

“What we realize is roughly 8% of the country has fiber built to the home, so most places around the country are just underserved with fiber,” he said. “But the demand for fiber is only increasing because of the increase in devices and the need for greater bandwidth.”

Flume services New York City’s Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn boroughs, and the company is looking to expand into parts of Queens. Earlier this year, Flume launched in Los Angeles as well as East Hartford, Connecticut. In Connecticut, Flume is leveraging an open access fiber network to stand out as a challenger ISP in that market, said Gibson.

Flume is aiming to enter three additional markets by the end of 2023. Gibson didn’t share details on the specific cities but noted the company is targeting metro areas that are “similarly sized” to its current markets.  

As Flume continues to grow, it’s looking to add complementary services to its internet package.

“We are a pure play broadband provider, but a lot of our customers ask us for things like streaming, security, etc.,” Vijay said. “Those are the two main things I think I’m looking at, personally.”

While Flume is a venture-backed private company, it’s also eyeing some federal broadband grants. Vijay noted Flume applied for the $1 billion Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure program, for which the NTIA will issue awards beginning in early 2023.