Population Center in Chautauqua County May Be First City in New York With Municipal Fiber

Jamestown is hoping an open access network would make internet more affordable.

Population Center in Chautauqua County May Be First City in New York With Municipal Fiber
Jamestown Mayor Eddie Sundquist

August 18, 2021 — Jamestown – home to 30,000 residents, the largest population center in western Chautauqua County – could become the first city in the state of New York to construct a citywide municipal fiber network using American Rescue Plan relief funds.

In April, Mayor Eddie Sundquist formed a task force to assess the potential for a municipal fiber network in Jamestown. The city is currently working with EntryPoint Networks on a feasibility study to estimate the overall cost of the project, as well as surveying residential interest in building a municipally owned open access broadband network in Jamestown.

If the city decides to go through with the project, Jamestown will be the first city in New York state to embark on a municipal fiber build. Although many cities across New York state own dark fiber assets, and cooperatives in the southeastern and northern regions of the state are serving some residents, no city in the Empire State has moved forward with building a citywide fiber-to-the-home network.

Idea dating back to Sundquist’s mayoral campaign

Connecting citizens to new technology was a component of Mayor Eddie Sundquist’s 2019 mayoral campaign, centered around efforts to enhance economic development and community revitalization projects.

“Who says that we can’t become a technology hub attracting businesses around the country with our low cost of living and rich resources? Who says we can’t wire broadband and fiber to every home and business in this city at a lower cost?,” WRFA reported Sundquist campaigning in 2019.

In an interview with the Institute for Local Self Reliance, Mayor Sundquist recalled that the message was well-received by Jamestown residents, and that even pre-pandemic, city residents were calling for more reliable Internet access offering higher speeds.

Jamestown residents are currently stuck with one or two Internet Service Providers to choose from: Charter Spectrum and Windstream. In the process of conducting the feasibility study, network planners learned that the cost for Internet access in the community is comparatively high for the lower-than-average Internet access speeds residents are receiving.

With a little more than a year in office under his belt, Mayor Sundquist sees the proposed network as more than infrastructure essential to growing the economy. He considers the fiber network the key to connecting citizens to 21st century opportunities and revolutionizing the way residents connect and interact.

Impacts of open access municipal fiber

Under the open access network model Jamestown is pursuing, the city would own and maintain all network infrastructure, which the city would then lease to third-party ISPs to compete in offering Internet services to residents. Since the city would own the infrastructure, it would be able to establish basic network policies to address community-specific needs, such as prohibiting bandwidth caps or providing a service option affordable for low-income residents.

To ensure that low-income households are able to access the network, Sundquist said the city would require ISPs offering service over the network to provide a low-speed, low-cost Lifeline service option.

Throughout the pandemic, private providers refused to connect local residents with outstanding balances to free services being offered under the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, Sundquist said, echoing what he recently told WNY News.

“Just from talking to families and school kids alone, the ability to have free or low-cost internet is incredible, it is such a huge need. We’ve had so many families that had to go without because a lot of these companies refused to connect them up because of past due balances and bills.”

Although Sundquist said the low-speed Lifeline option would provide enough bandwidth for Jamestown’s residents to access virtual education and telehealth resources, Jamestown could consider taking a page from the book of Hillsboro, Oregon, whose citywide FTTH network provides symmetrical gigabit connections for $10 a month to qualifying low-income families. The city of Jamestown could also choose to model Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber network recently committed to supplying low-income households with students free 100 Mbps symmetrical connections.

Besides the benefits a municipal fiber network would have for Jamestown students, it would also be a game-changer for Jamestown’s intergovernmental operations.

The municipal network could alleviate recurring charges the city pays to lease Internet and telephone services from multiple providers. Though unsure of the exact figure, Mayor Sundquist said that nearly all municipal buildings are connected with fiber service which costs “around $500 a month per building.” As the city owns several buildings, “the costs are astronomical when you tie in phone services and Voice over IP (VoIP) services. We’re talking thousands and thousands per building,” Sundquist said.

The cost-saving benefits of a city-owned fiber network would also aid Jamestown’s municipal power plant. The city maintains a utility company which currently leases Internet service. “To be able to connect . . . our utility service or to allow our utility service to use their own connection between substations is really critical,” Sundquist said. “It [would provide] a really incredible savings to the city.”

Beyond that, the network would also assist in helping Jamestown move towards Smart City initiatives, such as digital monitoring of water and electric meters.

Prioritizing mental health with federal relief funds

Jamestown is considering using $3 million of the $28 million in American Rescue Plan relief funds the city is set to receive over the next three years to build out broadband infrastructure.

According to the city’s Recovery Funds Master Plan [pdf], the highest spending category the city of Jamestown is looking to invest in is economic development, aiming to increase tourism, retool businesses, and attract new tech companies to a “Rust Belt” city. Another priority is for the city to invest in general services to complete city construction projects that have been on hold.

Also high on the city’s spending priority list is to direct relief funds to address housing and neighborhood issues, as well as mental health issues, which have become increasingly prevalent as residents have struggled to cope with the ongoing pandemic.

Jamestown’s Master Plan reports that “in the city alone, 6.5% of all calls for service from the Jamestown Police Department are to check on the well-being of an individual. This, coupled with an increasing homeless population in the city, creates the need to radically change how we address housing and mental health disparities in our community.”

In addition to a Mental Health Rapid Response project the city will be dedicating relief funds to, investing in a municipal fiber network would also support city efforts to improve access to mental health resources.

According to Sundquist, the low-cost Lifeline service required of ISPs on the citywide network would support mental telehealth initiatives and prove valuable to residents most afflicted by the pandemic by giving them a way to access telehealth services.

The city would also be able to subdivide and segment the municipal network to support its mental health goals. “For example, if we really needed to connect with folks that needed mental health evaluations or are currently working with therapists, we could create a specialty private network off of our network,” Mayor Sundquist told ILSR.

Mayor Sundquist said he is excited about the potential of using American Rescue Plan funds to improve Internet access across Jamestown, and for the immeasurable benefits a municipal open access fiber network could bring to town.

Listen to Episode 460 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to learn more about the connectivity issues afflicting the Western part of New York state.

Check out this video on Mayor Sundquist’s effort in Jamestown.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Jericho Casper, a reporter for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on August 13, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.

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