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Wicked Broadband launches super-fast Internet portals ahead of city vote; AT&T brings security service to Lawrence

We are entering that time period where the entire U.S. economy becomes highly dependent on super-fast Internet service. Of course, I’m talking about the fantasy football season, and your ability to quickly drop Kansas City Chiefs players off your roster as they hurt themselves tying their shoelaces. Well, perhaps there are other reasons for gigabit broadband, and now Lawrence residents have a new place to try the super-fast service.

Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband on Sunday launched a new gigabit demonstration site at Z’s Devine Espresso at 23rd and Harper streets. If you are confused about what gigabit service is, it is the same type of super-fast Internet service that Google Fiber is installing in the Kansas City metro. (Now you, too, can download SUV reviews as fast as they do in Johnson County.) Wicked plans to have a second demo site operational — perhaps by the end of today — at the Good Eats restaurant, which you may remember as the former site of the Basil Leaf Cafe near Sixth and Fireside in West Lawrence. Wicked has offered gigabit service at several apartment complexes and other locations around town for some time now, but hasn't been able to widely deploy the service.

But that may change. Get ready to start hearing more about gigabit service in Lawrence. City commissioners are expected to have a vote soon on whether to provide a $1 million loan guarantee to Wicked Broadband to help the company install a pilot project that would bring the super-fast Internet to about 1,200 households primarily in downtown and East Lawrence.

If you remember, the city’s Public Incentives Review Committee back in May recommended the city provide the $1 million loan guarantee and waive several permit and development fees related to the project. But the recommendation from the committee came on a split 3-2 vote, and the issue never had made its way to the full City Commission. But Wicked Broadband co-owner Josh Montgomery said he’s now been told the City Commission plans to hear the issue at its Sept. 9 meeting. (City officials are telling me that date isn't yet set in stone.)

It is still unclear whether the plan has the necessary votes for approval from the commission. Two city commissioners are on the PIRC board, and they were split on the issue. Mayor Mike Amyx voted against the $1 million loan recommendation, while Commissioner Jeremy Farmer supported the plan.

The way the $1 million loan guarantee would work is that Wicked would secure private financing for the project, but if Wicked were to default on the loan, the city would guarantee payment to the bank. In such a scenario, the city would become the owner of the gigabit network installed by Wicked.

But it seems clear that there is also another financial issue for the city to consider. The $1 million project is just a pilot project. Getting gigabit service to 1,200 homes is not the ultimate goal. Montgomery said he believes the pilot project will be successful, and will allow his company to raise about $10 million in private funding for a phase II project that would add 10,000 more homes. Financing for a third phase to add the rest of the city would then follow. It seems that city officials will have to determine whether they believe a successful pilot project will indeed open up that type of private financing, or whether it is likely that any future phases will require public financing.

If the pilot project is approved, Montgomery said he expects construction work to begin in the spring. Current plans call for gigabit service to start at $99 per month. Montgomery also had previously announced that he planned to begin offering video television services through his network across town. He previously described it as 94-channel system that would include all the normal channels available on most cable systems. The service was supposed to be available in June, but Montgomery told me today that he has put that project on hold until he sees whether the city will support the pilot project.

As for the demonstration project at Z’s Divine Espresso, the gigabit service is part of the free hotspot at the coffee shop, so you don’t have to pay a fee to access the service. But you do need either a smartphone or a laptop that has the right equipment to take full advantage of the gigabit speed. In case you are scoring at home, I’m told that is a an 802.11ac enabled-device, which is common on many of the newer smartphones and laptops. But that is just what I’m told. I’m not up on all of this. Heck, I’m just now learning my plan to start Chief’s wide receiver Dwayne Bowe in Week 1 apparently has gone up in smoke.

In other news and notes from around town:

• Here’s another company to keep an eye on when it comes to plans for super-fast Internet service: AT&T. The telecommunications giant was one of four companies that responded in March to the city’s request for proposals on gigabit Internet service. Back then, AT&T said Lawrence was on the list of cities it was studying for gigabit service. Then, not much happened. But it is worth noting that AT&T earlier this month did sign an agreement with the city of Overland Park to begin providing gigabit service to that Johnson County community.

I talked with AT&T spokesman Chris Lester recently, and he said there is still no update on what AT&T may be thinking about Lawrence and the possibility of gigabit service.

AT&T is making news on another front in Lawrence, however. On Friday, AT&T launched Digital Life home security and automation service in Lawrence. The service is basically a home security system that can be upgraded to make your home more automated as well. What do I mean by that? No, I don’t think it has a function that will take out the trash for you, but it does have functions that allow you to close your garage door via your wireless phone or tablet. It also has functions that allow you to use your wireless devices to lock and unlock doors, detect water leaks, control your thermostat, and view security videos of your home.

“If you are a professional who travels a lot, we think it is a pretty interesting product to have,” Lester said. “Or, if you are parents with latch-key kids, it has some nice features. Whenever some one comes to your door, it will take a picture and send you a text with that picture.”

Unlike AT&T’s U-Verse service, which is available only in select areas of Lawrence, Lester said the Digital Life service will be available citywide. Lawrence is the 82nd city in the country that AT&T has launched the service. It looks like this is becoming quite the trend with telecommunications and broadband companies. I also got word that the cable company in Baldwin City — Mediacom Broadband — also launched a similar service there last week.

• UPDATE: At a Kansas City Area Development Council event this evening, the New Zealand-based animal health company Simcro announced it will locate its North American Headquarters in Lawrence. The firm will locate in the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on KU's West Campus. The release says the company will begin hiring new employees immediately, but doesn't provide any details on the number of new employees. Sources have told me job totals initially will be minimal, but will be high-paying positions. I'll try to get you more details on Tuesday.

I’m keeping my ears open for a possible announcement regarding a new animal health sciences company that may locate its headquarters in Lawrence. What I hear at the moment is the number of jobs initially may not be large, but area officials are excited about the company nonetheless because it helps with the community’s efforts to build up a base of animal health sciences companies. This entire area between Columbia, Mo., and Manhattan is being touted as the world’s leading corridor for animal health science companies, and Lawrence leaders are getting more interested all the time in being part of that movement. They are finding that there are a good number of companies that want to be next to Kansas University’s nationally-ranked pharmacy school because much of the research that the pharmacy school does on human health can also be transferred to the animal health field too. My understanding is this latest prospect is interested in locating in the expanded bioscience and technology incubator on KU’s West Campus, which is right across the street from the pharmacy school. Hopefully I’ll have more details for you soon.

Reply 8 comments from Dave Greenbaum Lori Nation Thomas Shorock Bob Forer Dave Bonnell Perses Mike Silverman Philipp Wannemaker Amy Elliott

New report finds city’s broadband market sub-par

Costlier, slower, more limited: It is bringing back memories of the teacher comment section on my report cards.

Well, this is a report card of sorts, and "costlier, slower, more limited" is the key phrase in a new study of the city’s Internet broadband market. A consulting team hired by Lawrence City Hall found that the current broadband offerings in Lawrence generally are “costlier, slower and more limited than in other comparable communities.”

Fixing that situation, however, won’t be easy. Every once in a while the idea of the city owning and operating its own high-speed Internet broadband network is brought up. In other words, the city would jump into the Internet service provider market, and compete with the likes of Knology, AT&T and others. But the city would do it with high-speed, fiber-optic cable that runs directly to homes and businesses, as opposed to the slower, more traditional copper telephone and cable lines that serve much of Lawrence.

The idea is a recurring dream for technology geeks. But the latest numbers indicate it may be nothing more than a dream for quite some time. The consultants, CTC Technology & Energy, estimate that it will cost upwards of $70 million to build and deploy such a system in the city. That’s not an impossible number — it's about $25 million more than what the city is spending for a library and a recreation center — but the consultants are urging caution in the matter. Their analysis indicates the city would have to capture at least 50 percent of the entire market share in Lawrence to break even. That would be a tough number to reach, the consultants predict.

But there are other ways the city can make itself a more desirable high-speed Internet city – which not surprisingly, the consultants said will be very important in the future. Here’s a look at some of the recommendations:

• The city could spend around $320,000 to $640,000 to complete a 17-mile ring of fiber-optic cable around the city. The fiber would allow city, county, school and university facilities access to higher-speed Internet connections. The consultants say that alone is worth the cost of the project. But if built in the right way, excess capacity on the fiber ring could be leased out to private companies that have an interest in competing against the two large Internet providers in the city — AT&T and Knology. The report found there are at least three companies that have expressed an interest in such an idea: Level 3, Kansas Fiber Network and Wicked Broadband, which already leases some fiber from the city.

• New development regulations could be written that would require builders to install more fiber-optic infrastructure as a part of their projects. Loma Linda, Calif., has created development regulations that require “cable pathways, fiber connections and internal fiber wiring” be installed as part of any major residential or commercial building project. Sandy, Ore., goes even further. It requires developers to install conduit all the way from the public right-of-way to the home, and then deed that conduit to the city. The idea is that when fiber-optic projects reach a neighborhood, the most expensive part of the process already will be complete, courtesy of developers. The report estimates any new regulations would be a “small burden” to developers. We would see about that, but usually new regulations for developers produce something a bit larger than a “small debate” at City Hall.

• Sucking up to Google may be a good idea. The Google Fiber project in Kansas City is all the buzz in the tech world. The consultants said the city should at least make a more serious effort to have Google consider expanding the project to Lawrence. Google recently did announce that it was expanding the service to Olathe. The consultants reached out to the community manager for the Google Fiber project, and she asked that the city send a formal letter of interest to enter into discussions with Google about an expansion.

As for what the report had to say about Lawrence’s existing broadband providers, it wasn’t much different than what many ordinary folks say. The report found AT&T’s offerings are more limited than in several other comparable communities. With Knology, the consultants found the company’s base pricing is reasonably competitive with other markets, but its use of data caps on many plans makes it less competitive. The report didn’t provide any analysis of the recently-announced pilot project by Wicked Broadband to extend fiber to at least one neighborhood in Lawrence.

The report made several other recommendations and findings, but they were of a technical nature that went beyond my “costlier, slower and more limited” mind.

City commissioners will get a chance to digest the report soon. The City Commission is expected to formally receive the report and discuss possible next steps in the next several weeks.

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