Members of the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee are asking all the right questions about a request for a $500,000 grant and other incentives to support a local broadband company’s quest to provide 1 gigabit Internet service to downtown and about 1,000 customers east of downtown.
Their questions reflect some real concerns about the Wicked Broadband proposal that must be addressed before any recommendation is made.
One key question is what the city’s long-term financial commitment to this project could be. The $500,000 grant would be used to finance only a small pilot project. The second phase of the project envisions bringing the 1 gigabit service — the same level of service that Google Fiber has promised in Kansas City — to the entire city. That project would cost an estimated $20 million to $30 million to build. The initial grant isn’t going to buy much enhanced Internet service for the community, but it could open the door for many future funding requests to support the Wicked Broadband network. As County Commissioner Mike Gaughan pointed out, the city needs to determine how great an appetite the city has for 1 gigabit service and how much it is willing to spend on it.
The other key question is: If the city is willing to invest even $500,000 in enhanced Internet service, shouldn’t it make an effort to attract proposals from other broadband providers that already serve Lawrence? The answer to that question is obvious: Of course it should. PIRC members wisely asked city staff member to report back on how the city could advertise a request for proposals from other companies that might be interested in providing super-fast broadband service in Lawrence.
The incentives committee also asked city staff to calculate the value of the other incentives being sought, including a pair of 30-year leases, at a rate of $10 each, that would allow Wicked Broadband to use a portion of the city’s existing fiber optic network. Members also wanted to investigate the possibility of replacing the $500,000 grant with a $500,000 forgivable loan that could be tied to the company meeting certain investment or employment levels.
All of this information should help the PIRC make a well-reasoned recommendation on the Wicked Broadband proposal. Super-fast broadband service could be great for Lawrence, but that doesn’t mean local officials should jump at the first plan that is put on the table.