A municipal Internet study and possible Internet access pilot for low-income neighborhoods in Madison have stalled in recent months with uncertainty and confusion about the direction the project is taking.
The city’s Digital Technology Committee is handling the two initiatives, which are aimed at addressing the digital divide and exploring the possibility of a municipal Internet system. But the project has fallen off track thanks to a mayoral election and disagreement about which direction to take.
A request for proposals that was supposed to be drafted by February has still not materialized, the committee lost its chair, Erik Paulson, this month when Mayor Paul Soglin appointed telecommunications professor Barry Orton in his place, and Soglin has started pushing more intensely for a city-wide fiber network rather than the 4G or LTE system that was previously under consideration.
“There seems to be a great deal of confusion, I think partially because our chair was not reappointed, and that made things just a little more difficult,” Ald. Mark Clear said of the latest committee meeting, which took place May 14 and was the first the committee had held since February.
“It was very frustrating, because I think where we ended up in this meeting is deciding that we had already decided we were putting out this RFP to get responses,” Clear said.
The budget includes $150,000 to fund a pilot of Internet expansion to a low-income neighborhood. There is also $100,000 allocated to fund a planning and feasibility study on a cooperative municipal Internet utility and another $250,000 allocated in 2016 for capital requirements.
Prior to January, the process was moving smoothly, with a request for proposals slated to be drafted by February.
But the issue became a contentious one between Soglin and challenger Scott Resnick in the mayoral election, as Resnick had spearheaded both of the initiatives as an alder.
In mid-January, Soglin held a press conference saying he would like to halt work on them and wait for a ruling from the Federal Communications Commission on community broadband. That ruling came and went in February with no immediate impact on Madison’s ability to set up municipal Internet.
Three months later, there is still no RFP.
Former committee chair Paulson said city staff asked for more time to work on it in March, so he canceled that month’s committee meeting. In April, he said, staff said they were short-staffed and out of town, so they preemptively canceled the meeting.
Paulson said he wasn’t happy about that, but added he’s not too bent out of shape.
Staff working on the project could not be reached for comment. Data center manager Rich Beadles did not return multiple calls seeking comment and chief information officer Paul Kronberger had an outgoing voicemail message noting he was out of the office all week.
“We still want to do the RFP and I really don’t understand why it wasn’t ready for us to review,” Clear said.
Meanwhile, three members of the committee saw their terms expire in April. While Soglin reappointed two of them — Mark Evans and Lauren Kieliszewski — he did not reappoint Paulson.
In his place, Soglin appointed Orton, a University of Wisconsin telecommunications professor who has edited and contributed to Soglin’s blog, Waxing America, and appeared alongside Soglin in his press conference on municipal broadband in January.
Paulson said he thinks part of the change is simply that Soglin wanted Orton on the committee, so one of the three people with terms expiring had to go. He said he also thinks it’s partially fallout from the mayoral election.
“I supported Alder Resnick in the mayoral election and Mayor Soglin certainly knew that,” Paulson said. “I don’t think that helped my chances any.”
Soglin said he doesn’t recall why he didn’t reappoint Paulson and said he appointed whoever he thought was best for the job.
As for whether Paulson’s support for Resnick played a role, Soglin said, “I can’t imagine that ever entered into our thinking.”
“I mean, certainly, no one can hold a candle to Barry Orton in this area,” he said.
Paulson said he didn’t want to disparage the mayor; Soglin wanted his person and found a way to get that done.
“In all fairness, Barry Orton has something I don’t have, and that’s the mayor’s trust on these issues,” Paulson said. “Elections have consequences and that’s the way this goes.”
Fiber vs. LTE
Alongside the shift in committee makeup and the delays, Soglin has come out even more strongly in support of pursuing a citywide fiber network over a more short-term network involving LTE or wireless technology.
“At this point I’m more convinced than ever we need to be focused on a complete high-speed fiber wiring in the city of Madison,” Soglin said. “Anything less is inadequate in meeting the two principal needs: first, making sure we cross the digital divide and secondly to retain and attract 21st century businesses to the city.”
The concern with building a fiber network is that it will take years and possibly cost upwards of $100 million.
There are no details yet on how the city would fund or set up the fiber network, but Soglin said he plans to start discussion on the plan this summer, having work underway in two years and most of the system complete in five to seven years total.
Some argue that doesn’t address the immediate needs of those without Internet, however, when continuing with a pilot and municipal Internet system could more immediately service those populations.
“It all goes back to what is our end goal and objective,” Resnick said. “If it is to provide the fastest Internet to residents and businesses who can pay, then (fiber) becomes a fine project. If our goal is to provide equitable Internet to all residents, particularly those who fall within the digital divide, then fiber to the home has not been a fruitful endeavor elsewhere.”
Anton Kapela, vice president of data center and network services at Madison networking firm 5Nines, said it would take his company about two months to have seven or eight sites up and running across the city offering 4G service.
Deployment of hardware at six sites would cost about $250,000 and cover most of the city, according to 5NINES’ response to a request for information the Digital Technology Committee sent out last year. Initial user equipment would cost about $150 per device and the pricing model estimated $1-$2 per gigabyte of data transfer.
There are details that would have to be worked out with an LTE or 4G proposal like the one from 5NINES, but the Digital Technology Committee is still planning on pursuing that route.
“Right now, we’re focusing on the pilot because we do still believe in our heart that it will produce some merit,” said committee member Teresa Holmes.
While he doesn’t agree with it, Soglin said he’ll let that process continue.
“I don’t support it. I have specifically told the staff I am not going to stay in the way of it, given how much time has already gone by,” Soglin said. “And if the committee thinks it’s a good idea, we should go forward with it, but I’m not going to be deterred from doing the right thing.”
Kapela said a lot of what’s lost in discussions so far is how the systems are synergistic. He said you can do an initial far-reaching build with miles of coverage and then back-fill with fiber as needed for medical centers or research stations. That would afford immediate coverage that could be improved gradually in a year or six months.
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified who canceled the April Digital Technology Committee meeting. Paulson said city staff canceled it.
“I think focusing on just one at the cost of the other is really unfortunate,” Kapela said.