A pilot program meant to bring internet access to four low-income Madison neighborhoods has ended after a second call for proposals to manage it went unanswered. The city severed ties with the local company originally implementing the project earlier this year.
Madison-based ResTech Services had been working to build a fiber-optic broadband network in Darbo-Worthington, Brentwood, Allied Drive and Kennedy Heights neighborhoods through the program, called Connecting Madison. The city and ResTech signed a $512,000 contract in March 2016.
However, the implementation process was slow and ultimately ended with the city sending a “cease and desist” letter to ResTech. The city is still working to resolve the matter, Assistant City Attorney Roger Allen said this week.
The city issued a second request for proposals April 12 to find a company that would operate the infrastructure in place as a continuous program but did not receive any responses by the May 25 deadline.
“We just decided that it’s not going to move forward,” said Ald. Mark Clear, District 19.
Under ResTech’s model, the company would provide internet service for $9.99 per month with unlimited data and a minimum speed of 25 megabits per second. ResTech was utilizing fiber technology and leveraging the existing Metropolitan Unified Fiber Network (MUFN) that services city buildings and schools.
The pilot program was designed to inform the more comprehensive Fiber to the Premises program, which is still being studied by Columbia Telecommunications Corporation.
When the city terminated the contract with ResTech in January, the pilot program had made service available in 86 buildings and had 19 active customers, according to a draft report from consultants in May.
ResTech president Bryan Schenker pointed to new low-cost internet options on the market, difficulty obtaining rights of entry and a lack of interest in the program as challenges in obtaining subscribers.
"Despite comments raising the concern that ResTech was the reason behind the low numbers, we have been successful in marketing our services in other properties," Schenker said in a statement.
The 19 customers have since had their service disconnected, interim chief information officer Sarah Edgerton said.
Edgerton said the outcome of Connecting Madison illustrated that the program needed more vetting of the vendor, dedicated staff to work with the vendor and funds to market the program.
“I do feel that it’s important that, if we can for all members of our community, we need to be sure we’re giving them access to robust and affordable broadband services,” Edgerton said.
Chief among the program’s challenges was getting permission from landlords to enter particular buildings. In some cases, landlords granted exclusive rights to their buildings with other internet service providers and in others, landlords were unresponsive, according to the draft report.
In the Brentwood and Allied Drive neighborhoods, half of the 130 property owners signed releases for right of entry. No rights of entry were signed in Kennedy Heights while all of the property owners in Darbo signed releases.
Late delivery on electronics and unsupported wiring in two of the neighborhoods added to the challenges. In addition, modems were not given to subscribers to get wireless access.
“It’s possible that with a very successful vendor relationship, that project might have been more accepted,” Clear said.
Through AT&T’s offer, at least one person in the household must be a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipient. Charter’s offer requires that customers either be eligible for the school district's free or reduced cost lunch program or supplemental security for seniors.
While access issues limited the number of potential customers for the pilot program, the percentage of potential customers who signed up to receive service was still relatively low.
“Residents who have access to a low-cost service may still lack knowledge of how to use internet services, may not know what benefits home broadband service can provide, or may lack the basic equipment required to make use of broadband services (namely a home computer),” according to the report.
Residents in the targeted pilot area may not have interest in paying for a home broadband connection or may be used to accessing internet through smartphones, the report said.
“It’s not clear now whether the need is even there,” Clear said.
Closing the ‘digital divide’
Madison has taken efforts over the past several years to close the digital divide, the gap between people with access to modern information and communications technology and those without.
“Right now in this current generation, access is key for anything,” City Council President Samba Baldeh said. “I don’t think it should be left entirely to private companies to fill the gap.”
The city formed the Digital Technology Committee in 2013 to advise the mayor and City Council on the city’s deployment and use of digital technology.
Two years later, the city sought proposals to build a network to be owned by the city and operated by the vendor to provide low-cost internet to the four identified neighborhoods. The city ultimately chose ResTech’s fiber-based proposals over two proposals for wireless.
The city announced the pilot program in September 2016 at a press conference in Allied Drive. As a part of the program, DANEnet, a digital literacy organization, would provide “fix-it” clinics and digital literacy programs.
Despite the pilot program’s challenge, the partnership with DANEnet has been successful.
DANEnet executive director Alyssa Kenney said the program has helped about 1,000 families enroll in some type of home internet plan and 400 computers have been distributed.
Kenney said access to the internet is so critical for students doing homework, residents looking for jobs and community engagement that there should be oversight and regulation.
“Regardless of whether it’s a pilot or Fiber to the Premises or just the city putting some of their additional resources, digital equity is important, and it’s important for the government to think about as it delivers all sorts of information and services to citizens,” Kenney said.
The city is continuing to study the more comprehensive Fiber to the Premises program that would create a citywide high-speed broadband network, which could cost the city $150 million over a four-year construction window.
The program would ultimately aim to close the digital divide by allowing unconnected residents to perform better in schools and compete for jobs, investing in the future, promoting a competitive local broadband marketplace and supporting free access.
The city authorized $173,00 for a feasibility analysis from Columbia Telecommunications Corporation that provided initial estimated costs. CTC is wrapping up an implementation that the city funded for $189,000.
Barry Orton, chair of the city's Digital Technology Committee, said broadband in Madison may be primarily left up to the private sector due to the high costs.
Orton said the committee hopes to have recommendations to the City Council by October. He said he suspects the implementing fiber-based broadband across the city would be too expensive for Madison without federal subsidies, which are unlikely.
“It doesn’t look real likely that we’re going to be able to pursue a city-based solution for whatever digital divide or speed divide there is,” Orton said.
Update: This story has been updated to include comments from ResTech president Bryan Schenker.