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Bristol, Connecticut, Considers Using Rescue Plan Funds For Citywide Open Access Network

City’s technology staff has been working with a consultant to draft design recommendations for the fiber network.

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Bristol Mayor Jeff Caggiano, who won election on November 2 and was inaugurated on November 8.

November 10, 2021 – Across New England, local-controlled, publicly-owned internet infrastructure is on the rise — from Bar Harbor, Maine to the Berkshires of Massachusetts. In Connecticut, however, it’s a different story. The Constitution State is a municipal broadband desert.

That may be changing, however, as Bristol (pop. 60,000) inches closer to becoming the first city in Connecticut to transform itself into a fountain of community-owned connectivity as city officials consider whether to use its federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to build a citywide open access fiber network. With $28 million in ARPA funds at its disposal, city officials have been in a months-long process of deciding how much, if any, of that money should be spent building fiber optic infrastructure.

The city’s chief technology staff has been working with a consultant to draft design recommendations for the network, which were anticipated to be presented to both City Council and the Financial Board in August or September.

“That plan has been completed but has not been presented to City officials as of yet,” City Chief Information Officer Scott Smith told ILSR in an email. “The consultants would like to present their plan in person to City officials and so we thought it might be more prudent to have them present it at an upcoming meeting of the Mayor’s ARPA Task Force. We are hoping that we can use some of the ARPA funds to fund a portion of this broadband buildout, especially in the areas of the City where we have a significant digital divide.”

Building this infrastructure would increase competition and address local concerns about the lack of reliable, affordable, high-speed internet access.

“With the covid pandemic, it catapulted it to the top (of concerns),” Smith told the Bristol Press. “We have a digital divide issue in Bristol that is quite large.”

Currently, there are no fiber options available in Bristol, with Comcast, Frontier, Viasat, and HughesNet offering only cable, DSL, and satellite. And while, BroadbandNow reports that Comcast’s highest service tier offers gig speed connectivity in the region, we know that privately-owned infrastructure does not mean universal access. It’s not accessible if you can’t afford it.

The city has been surveying residents about their interest in having the city facilitate more options for internet access, with more than 500 respondents as of August.

In Bristol’s 2022 Capital Budget Summary it says:

“The City continues to pursue the feasibility of a potential city-wide network and has appropriated $250,000 of ARPA funds to evaluate an open access fiber broadband network for internet service providers to use to provide services to businesses and households of Bristol. The 2021 appropriation of $100,000 is being used to provide an overall plan and feasibility study to see if this network is sustainable and if the community wants it.”

“The city built its own fiber network to connect all its buildings and the schools,” the City Chief Information Officer Scott Smith told the Bristol Press. “We already run one connected to the poles. We’re looking to try and use that as much as we can and expand that fiber out into the neighborhoods around the schools and around the city buildings with the ultimate goal of reaching the whole town.”

While the timeline is unclear, the fact that the city is seriously considering how to create a more competitive broadband market is unmistakable.

“We’re not going to become an ISP. We’d ask Internet Service Providers to compete over the infrastructure. The competition would bring down prices,” then-Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu told the Hartford Courant earlier this year. (Zoppo-Sassu lost her reelection bid for mayor this month to Republican challenger Jeff Caggiano, who was inaugurated on November 8, 2021.)

Municipal broadband networks are virtually non-existent in Connecticut, though Plainville started construction on an Institutional Network (I-Net) this summer. If Bristol follows through with building an open access fiber network and is successful, it would provide a powerful example for other communities in the state and potentially inspire local governments in other parts of the state to follow suit.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Maren Machles, a reporter for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on October 29, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

Fiber

Utah City Approves UTOPIA Fiber Build

UTOPIA continues to expand open access model builds.

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Photo of Bountiful City Hall

BOUNTIFUL, May 24, 2023 – The city council in Bountiful, Utah, voted unanimously to approve the building of a city-owned fiber network by Utah-based service provider UTOPIA Fiber Tuesday. 

The open access fiber infrastructure will be owned by the city but operated by UTOPIA Fiber, which will then lease the fiber to internet service providers. 

City council members expressed their resounding support for the program. We believe that the estimates of take rates are conservative and reasonable when compared to like communities, said City Manager Gary Hill, pointing to neighboring town Centerville that has 49 percent take rate on its city-owned network. 

Bountiful will issue $43 million in bonds to fund the program, announced the city. The debt service for the bond will be paid for using system revenues with any excess revenue invested into affordability assistance, city council members said.  

The initial contract term is 10 years with buildout expected to take 2-3 years. The city anticipates that it will make profit on the investment within four to five years of operation. 

In 2022, at the request of residents, the city issued a request for proposals that were released to potential fiber providers to build and operate a city-owned network. In January, Bountiful officials began contract negotiations with UTOPIA. 

“The purpose of the City’s involvement with fiber is to provide a competitive marketplace for internet service providers through an open access network,” read the city’s statement.  

The announcement comes months after West Haven, Utah announced its contract with UTOPIA Fiber for a city-wide network. 

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Open Access

AT&T Closes Open Access Fiber Deal With BlackRock

In a new joint venture, AT&T will expand its fiber network across the nation.

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Photo of Christopher Sambar of AT&T

NEW ORLEANS, May 12, 2023 – AT&T is set to invest several million dollars of capital into fiber builds across the country as it announces the closing of its joint venture deal with fund manager BlackRock, the company said.  

In December, AT&T and BlackRock announced the formation of their joint venture, Gigapower LLC, to operate and deploy a fiber network to 1.5 million customers using a commercial open access platform.  

The deal between the companies closed Thursday. According to the press release, the new company’s goal is to “create the United States’ largest commercial wholesale open access fiber network to bring high-speed connectivity to more Americans.” 

“We believe fiber connectivity changes everything. That’s why we’re already one of the biggest investors in fiber in the United States,” said John Stankey, CEO of AT&T in a statement.  

“The demand for high-speed connectivity is unprecedented, and through this innovative partnership with BlackRock, one of the world’s foremost investors in infrastructure, we’re able to connect even more people and businesses, accelerating our efforts to help close the digital divide,” he said. 

Gigapower will enable AT&T to expand its fiber reach beyond its traditional areas and spread across the country, read the press release. BlackRock brings significant expertise and capital to support the buildout. 

The company expects to expand into Las Vegas, Nevada and areas of Arizona as well as Northeastern Pennsylvania and parts of Alabama and Florida that are currently outside of AT&T’s service areas. 

Christopher Sambar, executive vice president of AT&T, said in a Connect (X) event Wednesday that the company has already invested millions of dollars to build the most expansive fiber network in America.  

Between 2018 and 2022, AT&T invested $120 billion into the US economy via capital expenditures, he said, making the company one of the largest capital investors in America. 

Fiber is the backbone of wireless and 5G technology, he said. It is essential that the industry builds the foundation of fiber to support 5G and enable further innovations in the technology. 

According to Sambar, well over 170 million customers are being serviced with high-speed 5G networks and close to 300 million are serviced with speeds close to 5G.  

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Open Access

Utility-Based Broadband Touted as Solution for Addressing Digital Divide

Broadband infrastructure can be seen as a fourth utility after water, gas and electricity.

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Photo Sean Stokes from Keller and Heckman

HOUSTON, May 5, 2023 – A utility-based broadband model is the only solution to bridge the digital divide, panel heard at the Broadband Communities Summit Thursday. 

“If we’re going to solve the digital divide, we need to use the utility model,” stated Josh Leonard from engineering company Burns and McDonalds. 

A utility model, sometimes dubbed municipal broadband, is broadband infrastructure owned by public entities. Service is provided to residents by service providers that lease publicly owned networks in an open-access system.  

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, most state and city officials understand that broadband needs to be the fourth utility – after water, gas and electricity – said Leonard, but they do not treat it as such. 

Utilities understand how to operate large infrastructure projects that connect hundreds and thousands of homes, said Sean Stokes, partner at Keller and Heckman law firm. Utilities already have a core internal communication capability and already have essential infrastructure in place such as utility poles. 

Although utilities rarely want to be an internet service provider, Stokes continued, they are uniquely positioned to effectively run the network and lease it to providers. Open access enables partnerships with entities that want to be investors but don’t want to operate or be a provider, said Ashley Poling of fiber network software company COS Systems. 

Building single-use fiber, as many ISPs do when connecting communities, harms communities by requiring multiple digs in the future. The goal is to build capacity for all current and futures once, said Franciso Arbide of NextEra Infrastructure Solutions 

Does so allows more flexibility to add providers, eliminates issues if providers have poor service, and put pressure on non-performing providers, said Arbide. 

Entities looking to invest in large-scale infrastructure investments are not making realistic assessments of the actual cost of deploying infrastructure, cost and time to access utility poles, increased cost and delay in supply chains, and labor shortages, said Stokes. The best solution is to utilize the assets that utilities already have in their toolbelt, he said. 

Experience is the number-one priority when looking to build a broadband project, agreed Seema Patel of Chapman and Cutler. “Having experience in the industry is really going to be critical,” she said. 

“This infrastructure-based utility model is what succeeds,” said Poling. “The states that understand this will really achieve almost 100 percent digital equity. Others will not.”

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