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As Madison officials await feasibility study, questions surround push for municipal fiber-optic network

As Madison officials await a report on a proposed city-owned broadband network, a telecommunications expert questioned the need for such a project.

Officials in both Madison and Milwaukee have expressed interest in having their cities build and own an underground network of fiber-optic cables. The proposed system would provide residents and businesses with Internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second.

Late last year, Madison called for a study to look into whether it would be practical to have local governments themselves — rather than private companies — build such a network. The city’s Digital Technology Committee is scheduled to receive the latest news on those efforts on Thursday, and a final report could be ready before the month is out, said Paul Kronberger, chief information officer for Madison.

fiber-opticSome say that no matter what the results are, local officials would be wiser to turn to the private sector. Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, questioned why Madison officials would want to have publicly owned broadband when they already have one of the most-developed Internet networks in the state.

The same, he said, goes for Milwaukee officials, who are also looking to the Madison study for guidance on their own proposal to build a city-owned broadband network.

“Overbuilding existing private sector broadband options is not a wise investment for local governments,” Esbeck said. “I’m not sure what they’re hoping to accomplish by overbuilding (on) the robust private sector companies that are already serving those cities.”

Local governments, rather than build their own broadband systems, should be doing everything in their power to welcome private broadband companies, he said. Esbeck noted a new state policy aimed at encouraging private industry to build broadband networks by cutting red tape.

Gov. Scott Walker last week announced that the state would begin issuing Broadband Forward community certifications to local governments that take specific steps to eliminate barriers to private investment in the networks. To get a certification, local officials must agree to adhere to strict timelines when responding to telecommunication companies’ requests for permission to build broadband networks. They must also pledge to not overcharge for things such as access to right of way.

“The certification is really a way for a local unit of government to put up a welcome mat for additional broadband investment,” Esbeck said.

He said broadband service should become available in nearly every corner of the state in the next six years. Esbeck noted the Federal Communication Commission’s recent award of $570 million to the state’s three largest telecommunication companies — AT&T, Centurylink and Frontier.

The federal money is to help provide Internet service to about 230,000 more homes and businesses, he said.

In Milwaukee, though, local officials are worried that the poorest residents will be the last ones to receive access. They note that when AT&T recently installed fiber-optic cables in Milwaukee, it did so in only certain parts of the city.

Various officials said private industry seems reluctant to provide fiber-optic service in poorer neighborhoods.

Speaking in February about the possibility of having a city-owned broadband network, Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman said the system would be worth the public’s investment if enough residents were willing to pay for the service. He said cities such as Chattanooga, Tenn., have shown that publicly owned broadband networks can succeed.

About Alex Zank, alex.zank@dailyreporter.com

Alex Zank is a construction reporter for The Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 414-225-1820.

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