Proposed pilot project for super-fast Internet service shrinks; Baldwin City company making stronger push to bring gigabit service to Lawrence; downtown retailer closes
East Lawrence residents may want to momentarily put on hold their plans to become rich using super-fast Internet connections at their homes. (Yes, this may affect your plans to sell online all those tie-dyed Kansas City Royals T-shirts you made this weekend.) A pilot project to bring gigabit Internet service to parts of East Lawrence appears to be shrinking.
An official with Wicked Broadband has told me the company, at the suggestion of City Hall staff, is now asking the city for a $300,000 loan guarantee rather than the $1 million loan guarantee the company has been seeking for several months. But that means the geographic size of the pilot project also is shrinking. The proposal now is to provide the super-fast Internet service to 300 addresses, down from the original proposal of 1,000. Josh Montgomery, an owner of Wicked, told me that means the project likely will be more downtown-oriented. The original proposal was to extend service to downtown, parts of East Lawrence and a couple of other pockets of town. Montgomery said he’s in the process of drawing a new service map, but said the area in East Lawrence will shrink.
What will be interesting now is to see if the smaller size of the project helps it win the three votes needed on the City Commission. Commissioners will be discussing the latest Wicked proposal at their Tuesday evening meeting. What’s becoming clear as this project stretches on is that other private providers in the region are amping up their efforts in Lawrence.
We’ve already reported on the announcements by WOW, the largest Internet service provider in the city. It has committed to double its Internet speeds by January, and it recently has said it will begin offering 200 Mbps service at some point in 2015.
But the more interesting proposal may be from a Baldwin City-based company that is telling city commissioners that it can bring gigabit service to a broad area of Lawrence without a city loan guarantee or other similar incentives.
The company is RG Fiber, and we have reported on its plans before. But the group will be making its most detailed presentation yet to city commissioners on Tuesday night. The company also is hosting a big event in Baldwin on Wednesday to launch its gigabit project there. Gov. Sam Brownback and several Baldwin City and Baker University officials are scheduled to be in Baldwin City on Wednesday. RG Fiber won’t be turning on any gigabit service as part of the event, but rather will begin the sign-up period for homes and businesses in Baldwin that want the service. Mike Bosch, the top executive with RG Fiber, said he expects to begin offering service to 500 locations in Baldwin City by the summer, with construction beginning in the spring. Bosch said Baker University is driving demand for the service in Baldwin City, a significant number of local businesses and households have signed up for the service, which is being offered for $75 a month.
One of the key lines of fiber optic cable RG will use for the Baldwin City project will run through Lawrence. Bosch said that is a key reason why his company is in a position to provide gigabit service to parts of Lawrence. Bosch has unveiled a map that shows he could provide gigabit service to downtown, the Sixth Street corridor, the Iowa Street corridor, and the 23rd Street corridor in Lawrence.
Like Wicked, he is seeking to lease excess capacity that exists in the city-owed fiber optic cable that rings the city. Bosch said the company is proposing to pay $300 a month for access to four strands of cable. The proposal also includes language about asking the city to donate some land at the city’s Venture Park to house a data center and technology building for the company. But Bosch said that part of the proposal isn’t a deal-killer, and was included to forecast that the company may approach the city about the possibility in the future.
The main point Bosch is trying to highlight is his company does not need any loan guarantee from the city. And he says if the city does provide a loan guarantee to Wicked, he will kill any plans to bring gigabit service to Lawrence.
“If the city intervenes and funds our competitors, it is just not a smart business move for us to invest money and compete with the city of Lawrence,” Bosch said. “If the city does this, it looks like it has an emotional connection to one of my competitors that is so strong, that it wouldn’t make sense for anybody to go in and compete with that because you would never know where the city’s support would end.”
Montgomery, though, counters that it is no coincidence that interest in the Lawrence broadband market has picked up once Wicked started proposing bringing gigabit service to town.
“We feel like this competition is a direct result of us pushing this project forward,” Montgomery said. “The city should be working to get the best deal it can for consumers.”
The whole situation creates an interesting issue for the city: Does offering an incentive to one company create a disincentive to another company? Or is this all just posturing on the part of competitors? Will I ever be able to sell these 30,000, tie-dyed, Mike Moustakas bath robes?
In other news and notes from around town:
• Keep an eye out for construction work at 925 Iowa St. Montgomery confirmed to me that his company has signed a lease for 5,000 square feet of space in the building that is adjacent to the Hillcrest Shopping Center. Plans call for part of it to house technical equipment related to Wicked Broadband, but a good portion of it will be an enterprise called the Lawrence Center for Entrepreneurship. I’ll bring you more details as I get them, but it sounds like Montgomery and his wife, Lawrence school board member Kris Adair, will be providing a place where startup businesses can rent office space, have access to a business attorney and other types of experts.
• There is one less place in town to buy a Kansas City Royals hat. Lids, the store that specialized in hats of athletic teams, has closed its downtown Lawrence location. A sign on the door is directing people to check out its locations in the Kansas City area. The space at 729 Massachusetts doesn’t yet have a new tenant, said Jon Francis of Francis Sporting Goods, who is part of the ownership group of the building. Francis said a search has begun to fill the space, and a retail user is the main focus. He said the space likely would not work to house a restaurant.
“Retail is definitely what we want,” Francis said.
API Foils files plans for expansion in East Hills Business Park; latest timetable for Wakarusa roundabout; more news on super-fast broadband
Coming out of this Memorial Day weekend, there are at least two things to keep an eye on: the bathroom scale, after copious amounts of potato salad, and the check-engine light, after I used the Taurus to demonstrate how I would have run the Indy 500.
Well, let's add a third: An expansion project for a manufacturer in Lawrence's East Hills business park. A building permit has been issued for API Foils at 3841 Greenway Circle. I have reached out, but haven't yet caught up with the company's leadership to learn more details.
Information from the permit application, though, indicates the project consists of a 4,000-square-foot expansion, primarily for additional manufacturing space. The permit lists the amount of construction work at about $980,000.
The big question I hope to answer in the coming days is whether the expansion will result in any new jobs. Perhaps your big question is what does API Foils do? No, it doesn't involve the tin foil you used to wrap the ribs from this weekend. It doesn't even involve the tin foil you used to create your fireproof driver's suit for the Indy 500.
Instead, API Foils makes foils that are used in multiple ways in the packaging industry. Think of the shiny type of packaging used in a variety of products. The company's website lists the alcohol, tobacco, perfume, cosmetics, candy and health care industries as major users of their products. The company also is in the holographic printing business, providing the complex holographic seals that are often used on tickets, credit cards and other items that are at risk of being counterfeited.
The company is based in England, but in 2012 the firm's North American headquarters were moved to Lawrence from New Jersey. Prior to the move, the company had 52 employees in Lawrence, and the headquarters operations were expected to add another 17. I don't have a current employee total for the company.
Regardless of what the job impact is from this latest expansion, the project appears to be good news for Lawrence because it further strengthen's the company's local presence. API Foils operates 15 locations across the globe, but Lawrence is one of only five manufacturing locations for the company.
When I get more information about the project, I'll pass it along.
In other news and notes from around town:
• My neighbors will appreciate that by this time next year there will be a new location in the area for me to go round and round as I demonstrate my Indy 500 prowess. I'm talking about the proposed dual-lane roundabout at Wakarusa Drive and Inverness/Legends Drive.
Well, now we have a few more details about the timeline for the project. A new report from the city engineer indicates design work is complete, and the project is expected to be put out to bid on June 4. That would allow for construction to begin in July, with an estimated completion date of November. During the construction project, the city plans to keep one lane of traffic open in each direction on Wakarusa.
As for the roundabout design, the plans call for each lane of the roundabout to be 15 feet wide, which is a bit wider than normal traffic lanes the city builds these days. Also planned for the roundabout is a 12-foot "truck apron," perhaps in response to the number of times large trucks have driven over the center island of existing roundabouts in town. But, if I'm reading the plans right, the two wide lanes plus the truck apron will provide quite a bit of room for motorists to navigate the roundabout. Perhaps that will ease some concerns the public has had with the city's first foray into dual-lane roundabouts.
The project recently did get a positive recommendation from the city-county Bicycle Advisory Committee. There have been concerns expressed about bicycle safety in dual-lane roundabouts, but the group was convinced those concerns can be overcome. Bicyclists will have the option of taking an "exit ramp" of sorts that will allow them to leave the street and enter an 8-foot sidewalk that will take them through the intersection. Bicyclists, however, also will be allowed to stay on the street and go through the intersection as a vehicle. The bicycle advisory board asked city engineers to find signs that make it clear that bicyclists are not expected to share the lane of traffic with other vehicles while in the roundabout. In other words, bicyclists should drive down the middle of the lane so motorists aren't tempted to pull up alongside them.
There is one more hurdle that could affect the timing of the project. City engineers have confirmed that the eminent domain process may be needed to secure the necessary right-of-way from one of the four property owners at the intersection. Engineers haven't yet identified which property owner is holding out, but city commissioners at their Tuesday meeting will be asked to begin the eminent domain process. Engineers note that the eminent domain process can take two to three months to play out in court. Conceivably that could push back the proposed start date of the project. The roundabout project isn't expected to affect any buildings near the intersection, but it will require some changes to the landscaping in the area. Click here to see an overlay of the project.
• As we reported last week, Lawrence came one step closer to having a project that will bring super-fast one-gigabit broadband service to the city. A proposed public-private pilot project with Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband received a positive recommendation from a city advisory board.
The idea behind the project is to give Lawrence a competitive advantage by having Internet service that is far faster than most communities. How long that competitive advantage lasts will be an interesting question to monitor. Look no further than a recent article in the Wichita Eagle to get a sense of how serious some other communities are becoming about adding the super-fast broadband service.
The article details a project in Chanute, a town of a little more than 9,000 people in southeast Kansas. City officials there have tentatively decided to deliver gigabit service to every home in the city. But unlike the proposal in Lawrence, Chanute is planning to offer the service simply as part of its city utilities package. It is not partnering with a private provider, in part, because it looked for one and was not able to find a company that thought it made economic sense.
The city plans to offer the 1 gigabit service — the same speed offered by Google Fiber in Kansas City — for $40 per month. The city plans to spend $13 million to build out the system, although I believe the city already has spent some money to build a basic network that is in place currently.
For comparison purposes, Wicked Broadband is estimating it will cost $30 million to build out Lawrence — some companies have estimated $70 million. For its pilot project, which would cover downtown and parts of East Lawrence — Wicked is projecting the 1 gigabit service would be available for $99 per month.
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
Duplex and apartment development moving forward at the Kasold Curve; speculation about Google and Lawrence
For years, the Kasold Curve — that area where 31st Street turns into Kasold Drive — has just been an area where I close my eyes and hang on extra tight when I'm a passenger in my wife's car. Now, it may be an area that's showing Lawrence's renewed appetite for residential construction.
It looks like a deal has actually materialized to develop about 19 acres of the vacant ground at the curve into a mix of apartments and duplexes. All the way back in 2009 we reported that the Lawrence Wesleyan Church purchased 33 acres of property along the southeast edge of the curve. Plans called for the church to use part of the property to build a new church building and to sell the rest of the property to a private development group.
But, if you recall, the residential real estate market in 2009 was a bit like a K-State Wildcat at a Final Four party: lost and depressed. (Hey, it is gameday, after all.)
Church officials, however, now have told city leaders that they have a deal with a group of Lawrence investors — including real executives John McGrew and Mike McGrew — to purchase about 19 acres to develop about 55 duplexes (or about 110 living units,) plus a small apartment complex. The church will keep about 14 acres to use as part of its development of a new church building to replace its current building at 3705 Clinton Parkway.
The project is looking for a little bit of help from the city. Developers on Tuesday will ask the City Commission to approve a benefit district to finance about $690,000 worth of public streets and water mains for the project. Benefit district financing is common. The city provides financing for public infrastructure, such as a streets and utilities, and the property owners pay the city back through special assessments on their property tax bills. But the city's policy caps the amount to be financed at 75 percent of the expected infrastructure total. In other words, the developers are supposed to pay for 25 percent upfront.
But church officials are asking commissioners to wave that 25 percent down payment in this case. The developers aren't asking the city to pay for any of the infrastructure, but rather just want the city to finance about 90 percent of the costs instead of the normal 75 percent. Developers have said the extra up-front costs make the project infeasible. Commissioners will consider the request at their 6:35 p.m. meeting on Tuesday.
As for the development itself, look for it to change the traffic flow at the curve a bit. The plans approved by the city call for a new 50-foot long left-turn lane to be installed at the curve. The lane will accommodate traffic looking to turn into the new development. I haven't yet seen details on the apartment portion of the project. But it doesn't appear to be a large new apartment complex of several hundred units. The amount of ground set aside for apartment development is less than 2 acres. The bulk of the property is set aside for duplex development.
In other news and notes around town:
• As we have reported, the City Commission on Tuesday also will consider issuing a request for proposals from companies that are interested in improving the community's broadband service. This comes at the same time the city is trying to figure out whether to give a $500,000 grant and other incentives to Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband to do a pilot project to bring super-fast Internet service to downtown and East Lawrence. The super-fast speed would be the same 1 gigabit service that Google Fiber is providing in the Kansas City metro area.
During this whole discussion, I've certainly heard several people say they just wish the city would make more of an effort to convince Google Fiber to add Lawrence to its Kansas City project. And come to think of it, there probably is a legitimate question out there: Has the city of Lawrence ever formally sent a letter to Google Fiber asking them to consider Lawrence as part of the project? I know there was talk of it, but I don't remember if a formal request ever came about. I'll check on it and provide an update.
But Joshua Montgomery, one of the owners and operators of Wicked Broadband, is now touting that his company's pilot project may be the community's best chance to get Google Fiber to come to Lawrence. You can read his whole thinking here, in an op-ed that ran on the technology website arsTechnica. But in short, he's touting that the pilot project he hopes to build will feature what is called a common carriage network. What that means in this case is that the fiber optic cables in the ground would be large enough to allow up to four Internet service providers to operate on the network. The way it would work is that Wicked would occupy one of the four spaces, but if any other company wanted to use the network, it could lease space on the network to do so. That includes Google. That's not how Google is operating in Kansas City. It is building its own network there, but Montgomery is opining that Google's strategy may be flawed because it will take Google far too long to build networks in as many places as it would like to serve. He thinks Google may be open to another approach.
"Google needs to franchise its technology and marketing to municipalities," Montgomery wrote. "By franchising its operation to municipalities, Google can use its three most important assets to grow its network: branding, engineering and marketing. Municipalities can use their strongest abilities — managing infrastructure construction and providing long-term finance — to make the projects successful."
It is a new wrinkle in this discussion, so I wanted to pass it along. Whether Google has any interest in providing high-speed service in Lawrence is a bit of an unknown currently. Google has signed deals as far west as Olathe, but its plans in Kansas City have been a bit spotty, as this article notes.
But this whole broadband subject has been an interesting subject to watch. There are people who say that having high-speed broadband service in a community will be as important as it was to have a railroad or an interstate come through your town decades ago. But, of course, we're talking about the future, so it is difficult to prove or disprove that assertion here in the present. I have no answers, but I'm betting that it will continue to be interesting to watch.
Go-Karts, batting cages, mini-golf planned for new West Lawrence Family Fun Center; new info on high-speed Internet plans
I need to find my Mario Andretti sunglasses, my Chi Chi Rodriguez slacks and my Alex Rodriguez cologne ASAP. There are plans for a new West Lawrence development that includes electric go-karts, miniature golf, batting cages, and even mini-bowling. (I'm not sure what I'm supposed to wear for mini-bowling, but I promise it will be small.)
Plans have been filed at Lawrence City Hall for a proposed Family Fun Center at 4300 W. 24th Place, which basically is the vacant ground near the corner of Clinton Parkway and Inverness Drive. The plans call for the development to be on about 11 acres near the multitude of apartment complexes that have developed over the years between Inverness Drive and Crossgate Drive.
Based on the drawings submitted to City Hall, preliminary plans include about a 36,000 square-foot area for a go-kart track, about 7,200 square feet for batting cages, 87,000 square feet for miniature golf, and a 6,800 square-foot "tot lot." (I'm assuming it is an area for toddlers, but a pit full of warm tater tots would be excellent as well.)
In the center of the site is a proposed two-story, 28,000 square-foot clubhouse, which I assume would have the mini-bowling area. Information submitted to City Hall also indicates there also will be lots of area for birthday parties, arcade games, snack areas and that sort of thing. The information also indicates preliminary plans are to have a small bar area that would serve 3.2 beer.
The plans filed don't make it clear who the developer is behind the project. Lawrence-based Paul Werner Architects has filed the plans and is shepherding the development through the city approval process.
The development will require some significant approvals. I'm confirming with city officials, but it looks like the project will need not only a change in zoning to a commercial designation, but also a special use permit and a text amendment to the zoning code that would allow outdoor recreation centers in CN2 commercial zoning district.
It will be an interesting development to watch. Neighbors in the general area have fought hard against apartment development in recent years. So, the fact that this prime piece of property is being proposed for something other than apartments is probably welcome. Whether neighbors will take to the idea of an outdoor recreation center will be a key issue to watch.
Outdoor developments usually bring up the issue of noise and light pollution, and Werner's firm has indicated it will make limiting those issues an important part of the design process. The plans note that the go-karts will be electric rather than gas powered. The go-kart manufacturer advertises that the machines make noise equal to or less than a vehicle traveling down a road at about 20 to 30 mph.
The plan also will include significant landscaping to address lighting issues. Preliminary plans call for the business to be open well into the nighttime hours. According to a document submitted as part of the plans, the current thinking is for the business to be open until 10 p.m. on most weeknights, but open until midnight Thursday through Saturday.
Again, we'll see how the development progresses, but certainly the question of why Lawrence doesn't have a miniature golf business has been one that people have asked me frequently over the years (It probably was because I was wearing my Chi Chi Rodriguez slacks at the time.) Many of you probably remember that Lawrence did have a miniature golf and batting cage complex at 31st and Iowa streets well into the 1990s. But that site eventually was redeveloped as the location for Douglas County Bank. I had always been told high land prices had made such developments difficult, but the economic downturn may have changed that equation a bit.
In other news and notes around town:
• I'm still gathering some details on this, but city commissioners are being asked to work with another company that has plans to bring super high-speed Internet to the area.
City commissioners at their 6:35 p.m. meeting tonight will consider approving a right-of-way agreement with Baldwin City-based Dawn Fiber LLC. The company wants to install about 19,000 linear feet of conduit and fiber on city rights-of-way in various parts of central and eastern Lawrence. Locations include: Fifth and Tennessee; 11th and Tennessee; 11th and Haskell; 19th and Haskell; 19th and Harper; and 23rd and Harper. Plans call for the fiber also to be extended across the rural areas of the county and connected with Dawn Fiber's headquarters in Baldwin City.
City staff members are recommending approval of the deal because the right-of-way license agreement would ensure that a portion of the fiber could be used by the city of Lawrence for governmental uses. That opens up the possibility of the city high-speed Internet connections to traffic signals in central and eastern Lawrence, water towers in the area, an a multitude of city buildings, including: the Fire Training Center at 19th and Haskell, the central maintenance garage at 11th and Haskell, the East Lawrence Recreation Center at 1245 E. 15th Street, the Carnegie Building at Ninth and Vermont streets, and several other parks and recreation and maintenance buildings. Importantly, the new fiber route also would allow the city to easily connect with the statewide Kansas Fiber Network, which is an association of 29 rural Kansas telephone companies that offer a variety of services including wholesale Internet services to large users like governments.
What I'm still gathering details on is whether Dawn Fiber, which operates under the name Free State Broadband, plans to use the Lawrence fiber to offer residential and commercial Internet service in Lawrence, or whether this fiber installation is just part of its previously announced plans to bring high-speed Internet service to Baldwin City. I'll update you when I get more information.
UPDATE: I talked with an executive at Dawn Fiber, and current plans don't call for the company to offer residential or commercial service in Lawrence. The company plans to use the new fiber to support its efforts to wire Baldwin City with high speed Internet service.
• There's also news regarding the request by Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband for $500,000 city grant to help with a pilot project to bring super-fast Internet to parts of downtown and East Lawrence. Originally, the city's Public Incentives Review Committee was scheduled to meet and discuss the request today. But that meeting has been postponed to Jan. 21.
I'm not sure what has caused the delay, but based on the last city memo I saw, the city's staff members are not recommending approval of the grant request. I won't get into all of that now because I'm still gathering information from city and Wicked officials on the request, but I'll hope to have more on that in the coming days.
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.
The changes keep on coming in the Lawrence Internet market.
The largest Internet service provider in Lawrence has just announced that it is removing all of its usage caps from its Internet service packages, as the company changes its name from Knology to WOW! That means customers no longer will be charged for going over their usage limits, according to a press release by the company.
Englewood, Colo.-based WOW purchased Knology back in July, but it had not converted Knology over to the WOW brand until today. Signs for the company around town are being changed today, according to WOW.
But the changes related to Internet usage caps are likely to garner more attention from hard-core Internet users. The caps had generated concern among many users because customers’ standard monthly rates could rise depending on how much Internet usage they had in a particular month.
The change in the cap policy comes at a time when both private and public officials have been talking about shaking up the city’s Internet service provider market.
A city-hired consultant recently completed a report that found that current broadband offerings in Lawrence generally are “costlier, slower and more limited than in other comparable communities.” City officials had the report commissioned because they have been interested in possibly allowing private companies to have access to a growing ring of fiber optic cable owned by the city.
On the private front, Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband — formerly known as Lawrence Freenet — has made a proposal to the city to further tap into that ring of fiber. (Ring of Fiber: Johnny Cash used to sing that song in his old age.)
At their meeting tonight, city commissioners will receive a request from Wicked for low-cost fiber leases with the city, and a one-time $500,000 grant to help the company build new broadband infrastructure in the city. The request is part of a pilot project Wicked is launching to bring to one Lawrence neighborhood the same type of superfast Internet service that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. If successful, Wicked Broadband wants to extend the high-speed broadband project to all of the city.
So, we’ll see what cards the folks at WOW start playing in what appears to be an increasingly competitive game in Lawrence. Consumers, I suspect, will be keeping an eye on whether the competition starts having an impact on rates.
Wicked Broadband project seeks $500,000 city grant; downtown hotel project seeks adjustment to incentives package; historical society seeks $20k for new exhibit
Reading the agenda for Tuesday night’s Lawrence City Commission meeting is kind of like reading my household’s credit card bill: There are plenty of questions, and all the answers seem to have dollar signs.
There are three outside organizations requesting financial assistance from the city, with two of them each asking for a half-million dollars.
We’ll try to fill in more details later, but here’s a look at the basics of the requests:
• Lawrence-based Wicked Broadband announced last month that it will start a pilot project to bring super fast 1-Gigabit Internet service to a neighborhood later this year.
A kick-off event for the project spelled out a lot of details about how the company, which previously did business as Lawrence Freenet, could bring the same type of high-speed Internet service to Lawrence that Google Fiber is bringing to Kansas City. At that event, the idea of financial incentives from the city wasn’t envisioned. Well, it is now.
The company has filed an application for a $500,000 economic development grant from the city, plus is asking to receive up to a $20,000 a year rebate in franchise fees it pays to the city. It also wants to have the right to enter into $10 per year leases to use a portion of new fiber optic cables that the city plans to install throughout the community in future years.
Joshua Montgomery, co-owner of Wicked Broadband, said there are several factors that have caused him to rethink the need for city incentives for the project. But perhaps the largest is that he’s been contacted by several significant New York-based capital investment companies that are interested in investing in a locally owned, high-speed Internet service. Those investors have made it clear that the city of Lawrence needs to do something to show that it is committed to the idea of bringing a high-speed network to the city.
“If the city says that it is behind it 100 percent, that opens the door for the next $30 million in private funding that will be needed to spread this service to the rest of the community,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery said the $500,000, one-time grant would allow the service territory for the pilot project to grow to 1,000 households, up from 500. The neighborhood or neighborhoods haven’t been selected yet. Wicked is taking pre-registrations for the service on its website. The neighborhood with the highest percentage of residents pre-registered will serve as the pilot project. An announcement is expected June 15.
Montgomery said he and his business partner and wife, Lawrence school board member Kris Adair, are putting up $500,000 in private money for the pilot project.
City commissioners on Tuesday aren’t being asked to approve the request. Instead, Tuesday’s vote is just to direct city staff to begin analyzing it.
Wicked Broadband’s service will be a direct competitor to existing Internet providers, such as Knology and AT&T, which generally do not receive such city subsidies. So, it will be interesting to hear what those companies have to say as the process unfolds.
As for Montgomery, he said he’ll argue that the city won’t be making an investment in a private company as much as it will be making an investment in a new infrastructure system that will be critical to future commerce. “It is an economic enabler,” Montgomery said.
The second request comes from a group led by Lawrence businessman Doug Compton, which is seeking to build a new hotel at the southeast corner of Ninth and New Hampshire.
It is a bit more complicated to understand, and I’ll try to get a better handle on the numbers before Tuesday’s meeting. But the request seeks to raise the amount of Tax Increment Finance dollars the hotel is eligible to receive to $4 million, up from $3.5 million.
Unlike the Wicked Broadband request, this doesn’t involve the city writing a $500,000 check to the development. Instead, a TIF allows the project to get a rebate on a certain percentage of the property taxes it pays. It is kind of like a tax abatement, except the money has to be used to pay for infrastructure type of expenses. In this case, that includes a private parking garage for the hotel.
What makes it a bit complicated is that the developers also have proposed a multistory apartment/office project for the northeast corner of the intersection. It also uses Tax Increment Financing. It looks like a likely option is to increase the amount of TIF money available for the southeast corner hotel project by reducing the amount of projected TIF revenues available to the northeast corner apartment project.
If that is ultimately what happens, then the overall amount of incentive basically would be a wash. We’ll have to see how those details work out.
The more interesting part is what developers have said about the hotel project. It has had its necessary building approvals for months, but hasn’t yet started construction. A letter to the city now makes it clear that there are financial questions the investors are trying to answer.
Bill Fleming, an attorney for the development group, told the city in a letter that “the hotel investors are keenly interested in the ‘cost per key,’ which is the average cost for each hotel room.”
If the additional $500,000 in TIF money is not available to the hotel project, then that will raise the average cost per room the investors must pay.
“The investors may conclude the project is not feasible at that cost per key, and the project in that case will not proceed,” Fleming wrote.
That would be a major turn of events for the project, which faced stiff opposition from the adjacent East Lawrence neighborhood, and had to fight hard to win city approval.
Maybe the folks at the Douglas County Historical Society are more than just masters of history. Perhaps they also are masters of timing. After those two big-ticket items, they are asking for a mere $20,000 in city funding. The money will be used to help fund a permanent exhibit on the second floor of the Watkins Museum commemorating the 150th anniversary of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence.
The new exhibit is set to open on Aug. 17, and will “explore Douglas County’s history, issues that shaped the development of the community, and events that made it a focus of national attention.”
Ultimately, the exhibit will be expanded to the third floor of the museum. The bulk of the nearly $257,000 in exhibit costs has come from private individuals, businesses and grants.
City staff members are recommending approval of the $20,000 in funding. The money would come from the city’s guest tax fund, which receives its revenue from the guest tax charged at hotel and motel rooms.
Commissioners meet at 6:35 p.m. Tuesday.
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.