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.
It is fair to say that there already has been quite a bit of pot-stirring lately when it comes to providers of high-speed Internet service in Lawrence.
First, The World Company (the parent company of this Web site) sells Sunflower Broadband — the longtime, locally owned dominant provider of Internet service in the city — to Knology. Then, Knology sells itself to Colorado-based Wide Open West, which apparently has marketing people who drink a lot of caffeine because it officially goes by the name WOW!. Just to keep you on your toes, though, Knology hasn’t yet changed its name to WOW! here in Lawrence.
Meanwhile, the Internet provider Lawrence Freenet changed its name to Wicked Broadband and has begun expanding its service. (Its marketing people must drink whatever you drink while watching a marathon of the Wizard of Oz, because its tagline is “faster than a flock of flying monkeys.”)
And speaking of flying monkeys, there is Google. (That’s how they get all those search engine results, you know.) The world’s new corporate giant picked Kansas City, Kan., and then Kansas City, Mo., to launch its Google Fiber project, which promises to bring Internet service that is so fast that my wife would be able to deplete the entire inventories of online shopping sites with the single push of a button. The proximity of that project generated chatter in Lawrence about what it needs to do to keep up with the Jones of the broadband world.
Well, it is still a bit early to say that the pot is about to be stirred again — but there is an entity out there that is fiddling with the spoon. You may be surprised who it is: the city of Lawrence.
When it comes to valuable infrastructure, the city these days owns far more than roads, waterlines, parks and such. It also has large amounts of fiber optic cable or underground conduits to accept fiber optic cable.
At their Tuesday evening meeting, city commissioners will be asked to begin advertising for a consultant that can help the city determine how to best leverage its valuable fiber optic holdings.
What that will lead to is still uncertain. But a city staff memo points to a recent initiative in Seattle as an example of what other cities are trying to do with their fiber optic networks. One of the goals in Seattle is to increase competition among service providers.
It will be interesting to see if the city uses its fiber optic network in a way designed to lower the price of broadband services in the city. I don’t even know how the price of broadband services in Lawrence stack up to those in other communities. But I bet you tech companies thinking about moving to this area do.
The city already has been playing that game a bit. The folks at Wicked Broadband — mostly when it was Lawrence Freenet — have used city infrastructure to expand their service in town. The city and Wicked have an agreement that says Wicked will make efforts to provide low-cost Internet service to people who can’t afford it. According to the company’s Web site, 10 percent of a customer’s monthly service fee “helps bring Internet access to low-income households.”
The city has a fiber optic network or conduit that stretches all the way to Tee Pee Junction in North Lawrence to 23rd and Iowa in south Lawrence to the East Hills Business Park in eastern Lawrence and to west of the Sixth Street and South Lawrence Trafficway in west Lawrence.
But the city also wants a consultant to look at all the traffic signals, light poles, water towers and other city-owned structures that could accommodate equipment for wireless Internet service. Does the city have the infrastructure in place to create a wireless Internet cloud over the city? Given that until recently I kept going to The Raven to try to buy this Facebook everybody was talking about, I’m not the guy to ask. But a city-hired consultant is. We’ll get a read on Tuesday about how serious city commissioners are about being tech players in the community.