Government Technology, December 3, 2013
Los Angeles will release an RFP early next year seeking a vendor to build a free, fiber-based broadband network for all residents and businesses. But while the concept of citywide, high-speed connectivity is attractive, experts believe the plan isn’t realistic.
Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a technology-focused consumer advocacy group, told Ars Technica that his reaction to the news was wondering when Los Angeles would issue another RFP “for a unicorn supplier,” because he felt what L.A. was asking for in regard to broadband was impossible to achieve.
Los Angeles estimates a vendor would have to invest approximately $3 billion to $5 billion to create the network. While the company would have to provide free service at the slowest connection speeds to everyone, it could generate revenue by charging for premium services. The city may also look to be an anchor tenant on the network.
Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and a national expert on community broadband issues, is one of the Los Angeles plan’s early skeptics. He’s concerned that Los Angeles’ idea harkens back to Minneapolis’ municipal Wi-Fi build a few years ago. Minneapolis wanted a vendor to come in and operate the network. But it didn’t pan out the way city leaders envisioned.
The Minneapolis Wi-Fi project was completed, but only after several political and technical delays. According to Mitchell, the city now has to set aside $1 million per year over the next five years to keep the network afloat, even though it isn’t highly used.
Mitchell argues that Los Angeles should not depend on a vendor to lay fiber. Instead, it should invest in fiber and conduit itself, installing it during new construction and retrofitting of buildings and communities. This way the groundwork is laid and the city will have more options in the future. He added that Chattanooga, Tenn., and to a smaller extent, Seattle, have taken similar approaches and found success.
“They’re not giving anything up and they’re continuing to expand assets so they will have a voice in their future,” Mitchell said of Chattanooga and Seattle. “I don’t see L.A. doing that at all.”
Reneker confirmed that L.A. has no plans to own any part of the network. The city wants to leverage those broadband providers that have already made major investments in the area, or open up the doors to someone else that is willing to go to the extent it is asking for.
Mitchell said that while he has respect for the work Reneker did as CIO of Riverside, Calif., he disagrees with L.A.’s approach to broadband expansion. He warned that any city that is not immediately figuring out ways of getting fiber or conduit in the ground that it has some control over is doing a disservice to its residents.