A proposal to provide a $500,000 grant to Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband to spur a super-fast broadband service similar to Kansas City's Google Fiber project has some support among members of a key city advisory board.
But it also has some questions: Like whether a $500,000 grant may turn into millions of dollars in city investment in the next several years.
"This is going to cost us more than a half-million dollars," said Douglas County Commissioner Mike Gaughan, who is a member of the city's Public Incentives Review Committee. "What the amount ultimately will be, I don't know."
The Public Incentives Review Committee wants another month to figure those and other questions out. The committee at its Tuesday meeting delayed a vote on the project until its March 4 meeting and directed city staff members to produce more research on the proposal by Wicked Broadband, which formerly operated as Lawrence Freenet.
Wicked is seeking a host of incentives — including a $500,000 city-funded grant and forgiveness of some city fees — to help the company complete a pilot project that would bring 1 gigabit Internet service to downtown and to about 1,000 homes in East Lawrence. The 1 gigabit service is the same type of speed being offered by the much-publicized Google Fiber project in Kansas City.
Members of the public incentives commission will make a recommendation to city commissioners, who ultimately will determine whether to approve the incentives. Several committee members said the community's current broadband network may be affecting the city's ability to attract and grow technology companies.
"I think all the reports have indicated we have poor service," said Mayor Mike Dever, who chairs the public incentives committee. "We're below average. Let's put it that way."
But some committee members also said they were concerned that the city was contemplating providing the grant and incentives without finding out what other Internet providers — such as WOW and AT&T — could do if they were provided similar incentives.
"I want to be supportive of a local small business, but to be fair to everybody who has been in this business for a long time, we need to make sure everybody has a chance to respond," said City Commissioner Mike Amyx, who also is a member of the incentives committee.
Committee members asked staff members to bring back information on how the city could advertise for a request for proposals from companies that may be interested in providing super-fast broadband service in the city.
But Gaughan said city officials also need to have a discussion about how serious they are about boosting the city's broadband capabilities. The Wicked proposal calls for a second phase that would provide the high-speed service to virtually the entire city. It is estimated it would cost $20 million to $30 million to build. Wicked hasn't asked for any city money related to that second phase, but Gaughan said he thinks it is likely public funds would be needed to make the project feasible.
"I think the question is, really what is the city's appetite on this?" Gaughan said. "I hope the appetite is there because I think it could do some great things for the community."
City staff members recommended against the $500,000 grant proposal, and several of the other incentives, which included a pair of 30-year, $10 leases that would allow Wicked to use a portion of the city's existing fiber optic network.
Members of the incentives committee asked for more information about what the market value of those leases may be, and also asked staff members for information on how the city could offer Wicked a $500,000 forgivable loan rather than a $500,000 grant. The loan would be tied to the company meeting certain investment or job levels.
Two of the city's larger broadband providers — WOW and AT&T — both submitted letters of opposition to the city, citing concerns that the proposal would create an uneven competitive environment and may create some legal liability for the city.
Leaders with Wicked said they were encouraged that a majority of the committee had expressed an interest in improving the city's broadband capabilities.
"We think it would be a wonderful return on the city's investment," said Kris Adair, a co-owner of the company and a Lawrence school board member.