Four companies express interest in bringing superfast broadband service to city; Wicked has plans to launch cable TV service in Lawrence by June
And you thought the fight over the remote control during the NCAA Tournament was going to be fierce. Well, it looks like another type of technology battle is brewing at Lawrence City Hall.
Four technology companies are interested in undertaking a multimillion-dollar project to bring super-fast Internet service to Lawrence, on par with what Google Fiber is doing in Kansas City. But, no, Google Fiber is not one of the companies interested.
If you remember, the city in February issued a request for information from companies interested in partnering with the city on establishing an enhanced broadband network in the community. Four companies responded: Lawrence-based Wicked Fiber, which previously has operated as Lawrence Freenet; Baldwin City-based Free State Broadband; national giant AT&T; and ISG Technology and Twin Valley Telephone, which operates a host of largely rural telephone and Internet systems in north-central Kansas.
You can see the full responses here, but here's a quick summary.
— Wicked Fiber: The company, owned by Lawrence school board member Kris Adair and her husband, Joshua Montgomery, got this process started months ago. Wicked was seeking a $500,000 economic development grant from the city, plus the waiver of multiple city fees, in exchange for undertaking a $1 million pilot project that would bring 1 gigabit broadband service to downtown and much of East Lawrence. City commissioners balked at approving Wicked's request, and instead put the call out for more information.
Wicked's proposal is largely unchanged from those terms, although more details have been provided. Those details include Wicked now is asking the city to also underwrite its $500,000 loan it will need to build the pilot project. The company also is estimating that it will cost about $30 million to build a high-speed broadband network for the entire community. The company is projecting that once the pilot project is successful, it will be able to raise $10 million in equity financing and secure $20 million in long-term debt to build the project.
The company also is highlighting that the network it would build in Lawrence would have the capacity to host other Internet service providers. In other words, Wicked could use the system, but so could somebody like Google Fiber or another provider. Other providers would pay Wicked a publicly listed wholesale price to use the network. Wicked also is suggesting that the city receive 5 percent of all gross revenues generated by the broadband network. Wicked says such a system will promote competition and thus benefit consumers.
— Free State Broadband. The company currently is working on a project to bring advanced broadband service to Baldwin City. As part of that deal, the company has some agreements with the city of Lawrence that will run fiber through Lawrence to serve the Baldwin City customers.
Free State officials said they currently are conducting market studies to determine the feasibility of bringing high-speed Internet, phone and video service to Lawrence. If feasible, the company would want to expand its current licensing agreement with the city to include access to existing fiber optic lines that the city already owns. Free State is estimating that it will cost nearly $70 million to build a high-speed network that could serve the entire community. That's far different than the $30 million estimate from Wicked Fiber. I don't have the technical ability to compare the two estimates, but it seems that will be one of the big issues city officials will have to figure out.
Free State is not asking for a $500,000 economic development grant, but it does want an "easily accessible lot and a 3,000 square foot building" in the city's new Venture Park, which is the business park that is being developed on the site of the former Farmland Industries property.
— AT&T. The company said Lawrence now is among the cities it is studying to add 1 gigabit Internet service to its offerings. If the company decides to move forward, it said it would be responsible for all the financial requirements of the project. The help it would seek from the city would include: a dedicated city staff member who would work as a coordinator for the project; a joint community education program with the city; access to the city's infrastructure, including light poles, traffic signals and city buildings; city assistance to negotiate a deal with Westar Energy to allow AT&T access to some of Westar's infrastructure, such as power poles; a waiver of certain city permits, or an expedited review of city permits.
AT&T would build any Lawrence network in phases, and would select areas for service based on "neighborhoods in which demand is expected to compensate for the cost to deploy" the network.
— ISG/Twin Valley. Twin Valley touts itself as the largest privately owned communications company in Kansas. ISG is a subsidiary of Twin Valley, and is a "data center and IT infrastructure partner." In addition to operating a fiber optic network in north central Kansas, the company is highlighting a partnership with Columbia, Mo., where ISG provides broadband and data center services by using a fiber optic network that is owned by the city of Columbia.
The city of Lawrence owns a significant amount of fiber optic cable in the community, and all the respondents have indicated an interest in accessing that fiber optic network.
ISG/Twin Valley was not specific in what assistance it may require from the city. The company's proposal stated it wanted to "collaborate and further discuss" the city's goals.
As I mentioned, Google Fiber did not submit a proposal to the city. City officials have told me they made sure Google Fiber was aware that the city was seeking information from technology companies. There was one other notable company that didn't submit a proposal: WOW, which is currently the largest cable and Internet provider in the city.
I don't yet have a timeline for when the city will evaluate these proposals and make a decision about how to proceed. But I would think the process will get started relatively soon.
In the meantime, I've got plenty to figure out with securing this remote control. All right, I have the log chain attached to my wrist. I've got the chain attached to the remote. I'm set . . . oh, crud. Is that an acetylene torch she has?
In other news and notes from around town:
• There was an interesting side issue brought up in Wicked Fiber's proposal to the city. Company officials stated in the proposal that Wicked plans to begin offering a robust package of cable television service, beginning in June.
The proposal states "Wicked Broadband has entered into an agreement to provide television services to Lawrence. The company is in the process of launching its first TV product, which is expected to debut in June of 2014." That language leads me to believe that the service isn't dependent upon the company receiving incentives from the city, but I've got a call into Wicked officials to confirm that and other details.
The proposal goes on to say that one service will be a 27-channel service for $19.99 a month. A second service will offer 94 channels for $49.99 a month. The proposal includes a list of channels. They appear to be your standard major channels, although the plan currently does include premium channels such as HBO and Showtime.
Another detail I'm hoping to confirm is whether the service will be available citywide or only in select areas. Currently, Wicked provides service to more than 3,000 residents in the city, it says, with many of them at apartment complexes and greek living houses. I'll let you know if I hear more.
Look below for a list of the proposed channels.
More LJWorld City Coverage
Perhaps the community is learning what I've learned on many a white-knuckled trips from the passenger's seat of my wife's Ford Taurus: Speed isn't all it's cracked up to be.
An effort by a local company to bring super-fast Internet service to Lawrence hasn't yet taken off. Kris Adair, president of Lawrence's Wicked Broadband, told me the company's plans to bring 1 gigabit Internet service to a Lawrence neighborhood are uncertain at this point.
"We aren't seeing as much interest as we had expected," Adair said. "We're not giving up on it. We still think it is an amazing project, but we have to have the community buy-in to know that it will be financially feasible."
Wicked Broadband, which is an outgrowth of the former service Lawrence Freenet, announced in April that it was launching a pilot project to bring 1 gigabit service to at least one Lawrence neighborhood this year. The 1 gigabit service is the same kind being installed as part of the Google Fiber project in Kansas City. Just like Google in Kansas City, the neighborhood would be chosen based on how many residents in a particular neighborhood pre-registered for service. Wicked leaders said they planned to announce a winner on June 15.
But Wicked officials pushed that date back to Aug. 15 when it was clear that not enough people had pre-registered in any neighborhood. The Aug. 15 deadline also came and went without an announcement. Adair told me just before the deadline that the company now hopes to make a decision in September. That decision, however, may be that there is not a neighborhood in Lawrence that is viable for the service currently.
"We're definitely not as close as we would like," Adair said. "We probably need another 40 or 50 households in most neighborhoods to say they are interested."
On its Web site, the company has a listing of pre-registration totals for each neighborhood. It appears that only one neighborhood in the city, the Centennial neighborhood near Lawrence High, has more than 25 households pre-registered. But Wicked estimates that the neighborhood still needs 48 more households or businesses to sign up before it seriously can be considered a candidate for the pilot project.
The neighborhood closest to being feasible is the area around Hillcrest Elementary, just northeast of 15th and Iowa streets. It needs another 24 households to be in the running. (Wicked uses the city's voting precincts to define neighborhood boundaries. Even though the Hillcrest neighborhood doesn't have as many people signed up as Centennial, the percentage of households that have signed up is higher.)
The 1 gigabit Internet service is attracting a lot of attention in Kansas City. The service is being used by people interested in seamless video streaming, video game aficionados and, perhaps most importantly from and economic development standpoint, Internet start-up companies looking to create new applications for the Web.
It wouldn't be fair to say that Lawrence is uninterested in super-fast Internet service. Rather, it may be that the interest is just too spread out. According to Wicked's totals, almost every neighborhood in the city has had households or businesses pre-register for the service. Most areas, though, have had 10 or fewer households. Adair said information out of Kansas City is that once a neighborhood is selected, another 20 percent of households will go ahead and sign up for the service. But Wicked needs a certain density of customers to make the service viable, and thus far no neighborhood has reached that level.
"It is a significant investment, and we really want to make sure the community is interested," Adair said of Wicked's hesitancy to pick a neighborhood.
Households and businesses that have pre-registered have been required to put down a $10 deposit. Adair said those deposits will be refunded if the neighborhood is not chosen.
Also in limbo is the company's request for a $500,000 grant from the city to help bring the high-speed Internet service to Lawrence. Adair said the company hasn't withdrawn the grant request, but that it would not take money from the city unless the project starts to show more interest from the community.
Adair, who also is a Lawrence school board member, said she is not sure what to make of the less-than-expected interest in the service.
"We have been doing a social media blitz but it is not reaching them, or maybe they just aren't as interested as we think they are," Adair said.
We'll see what September brings for the project. As for what it will bring to the passenger's seat of the Taurus, I predict it will produce more white knuckles and an occasional black out.