City ready to move on broadband
"Broadband may not guarantee growth and development, but it guarantees the framework," said City Hall information technology staffer Scott Robertson at a meeting of the City Council on Thursday.
Fast and readily-available Internet access throughout Park City is a goal that the City has been interested in for years.
That interest "accelerated with the application submittal for the ‘Google Fiber for Communities’ in March 2010," according to Robertson’s report on broadband development.
Council members discussed "broadband technologies, economic development, policy availability and costs" during a "Study Session" on May 16, according to Robertson’s report. On Thursday, the Council again took up the issue and Robertson laid out possible options ranging from conservative to highly-ambitious for the Council to consider.
Thursday’s meeting was well-attended and included attendees from Internet providers in Salt Lake City, who appear to be closely-following Park City’s deliberations.
The four options for expanding and/or overhauling broadband access in Park City that were presented to the Council, as laid out in Robertson’s report, are as follows:
- Stay-the-course: "The City takes no direct action towards the development of broadband; let existing marketplace forces meet the demands. It is the simplest approach but extends the timeline for access to upper tier broadband."
- Encourage development:"The City works as a facilitator for broadband development by easing planning and zoning restrictions. Integrating options into land development codes and engineering standards. Other options include utilizing public assets, such as requiring all municipal projects to install conduit/pipe to facilitate future fiber installations, and leveraging franchise agreements."
- Sole provider: "One provider would have exclusive rights to provide Internet services for a period of time and must meet defined performance expectations in exchange for financial guarantees. The City would need to identify a qualified and interested provider through an RFP process. City could increase the pace of system development by becoming a financing partner."
- Promote/provide infrastructure: "The City would build a fiber network either directly or in partnership to connect businesses and households. The network would be established as an open marketplace for any service provider to deliver Internet services to the consumer. The City would not be a competitor, but providers would pay the City a fee for the right to utilize the system."
While Options 1 and 2 are the more-conservative paths the City could take, Options 3 and 4 are ambitious.
Option 1 seems like a non-starter when it comes to extending broadband access "the last mile," or "to every cul-de-sac in town," as Robertson and Council member Liza Simpson put it, respectively.
"There’s not substantial return on investment to compel providers to take that next leap," Robertson said.
After playing a CBS news report on a successful broadband network installation in Chattanooga, Tenn., where the fiber optic broadband network offers speeds up to 1 gigabit per second, Robertson made the case to the Council to further explore Option 4.
"This is a very exciting proposal," he said, labeling it "the ideal solution."
"I personally believe, per dollar spent, that you’d have the highest economic return compared to other initiatives," Robertson opined.
Pete Ashdown, CEO and Founder of Xmission Internet service provider, participated in the broadband discussion and served as a sort of expert witness when it comes to broadband network installation and finance issues.
He estimated that it would cost "$1,000 to 1,500 per location to run fiber to an entire city." He noted that that kind of investment is long-term and not one the City should expect to quickly recoup, if it were to provide significant financing for such a project.
"The fastest payback you could do, with a grant or something, would be 7 to 9 years," he said. Because of that delay, Ashdown said it can be difficult to attract venture capitalists to such projects, because they are usually seeking a more-immediate return on investment.
He noted that in Chattanooga and also in Kansas City, Austin and Provo, where Google is installing high-speed fiber networks the city made significant concessions as part of its broadband deal, including the waiver of franchise fees, free pole rentals and even free office space in city buildings.
Council members inquired about extending wireless Internet access in town as a possibility, but Ashdown said that wireless expansion is a complement to but "definitely" not a substitution for high-speed fiber broadband. He said that TV resolutions are climbing higher by the year and such signals will not be able to be transmitted over wireless networks.
Social equity is an idea that was brought into the Council’s discussion by Simpson and echoed by Abby McNulty, Park City Educational Foundation’s executive director. The idea is that school kids in the district who do not have Internet access at home are at a distinct disadvantage in relation to their peers. Expanding low-cost, possibly subsidized, broadband options to those in need would be a way of tackling that inequality problem.
Todd Hauber, business administrator for Park City School District, told The Park Record that this year 18 percent of students in the district receive free lunches and another 3 percent receive reduced-price lunches. Eligibility for those programs is based on family income.
McNulty said at Thursday’s meeting that of those 21 percent receiving assistance approximately 90 percent do not have Internet access at home.
McNulty said that maintaining free Internet "hotspots" at certain locations in town for those students is not a sufficient fix to the problem, because those students are often caretakers for siblings and cannot easily travel to such locations.
Simpson said that Options 3 and 4 are the most "intriguing" to her when it comes to social equity.
Those social equity factors will continue to be a part of the City’s continued study of the issue.
Outgoing Mayor Dana Williams noted that the City’s legal team will need to study whether some of the possible options could invite legal action by providers who are currently investing in and expanding their individual networks and could find themselves shut out of a new network, or at least forced to compete with other providers in a way that they currently do not.
Williams also sought future input from the providers that were in attendance. He said he would like to sit down with the providers because "we understand it’s a big deal, it’s a very important project" and "in my opinion, there are gaps here," because the City is not sure what the providers are thinking and/or planning, and whether they would be amenable to participate in a project that might bring them less revenues than their usual business models. Several of the providers’ representatives in attendance indicated willingness to participate in such a meeting.
"We’ve talked about it long enough, now we want to see what the potential is," Williams said, noting that, even if City Hall "fast-tracks" the process, it will still take several years "to get it done."
Council member Andy Beerman echoed Williams’ sentiment.
"I for one would like to see us fast track this," he said about the continued study of broadband options. He said he wants to "keep this moving along."
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