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Barry Orton

Barry Orton, chairman of the city's Digital Technology Committee, discusses the results of a national consulting agency's report on a so-called Fiber-to-the-Premises program that would provide high-speed broadband service to the entire city. 

Providing high-speed internet access to the entire city of Madison could cost between $143 and $150 million, a consultant's report released Monday shows.

The report is the result of about a year-long study by Maryland-based CTC Technology & Energy charged by the Madison Digital Technology Committee to analyze the feasibility of building a citywide fiber-optic cable system based on the city’s existing structure that services city buildings and schools.

Mayor Paul Soglin said the so-called Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) program, as opposed to a wireless network using 4G or LTE technology, is necessary to make Madison competitive and a model city in providing high-speed Internet that can support businesses and individual residents.

“This is not just for the engineers, the computer gurus, the gamesters, the hackers," Soglin said at a press conference Monday. “But we’re talking about every school, every neighborhood center, every household in Madison, Wisconsin.”

Madison currently has broadband services available from companies including AT&T and Charter Communications, but they are insufficient for a municipal program, Soglin said.

The consultants recommend the city pursue a “dark FTTP partnership” model, in which the city constructs and owns the fiber network but a private partner “lights” the fiber, allowing the city to use its existing fiber structure and retain some control over equity, ubiquity and quality issues.

To implement the recommended the program, it would cost an estimated $143.5 million if wires were placed above and underground, according to the report. If all wire wires were placed underground, it would cost the city $149.1 million.

By authorizing the report, the city remains in compliance with a state law that requires any municipality that wants to offer broadband services to conduct a cost-benefit analysis.

Barry Orton, chairman of the Digital Technology Committee, explained that the city would build a “fiber backbone” throughout the city, using the existing Metropolitan Unified Fiber Network (MUFN), and would partner with private companies that would then serve individual customers.

MUFN provides high-speed broadband connectivity to city government buildings, schools, libraries and fire stations, assisted in 2009 by a $5.1 million federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant.

“It is an enormously robust and cost-saving network,” Orton said. “The city is now attempting to build on top of that and use that as background to take MUFN citywide.”

This model would also keep the city from actually acting as a service provider and would enable, not compete with, the private sector, Orton said.

“The city doesn't want to get into the retail business of offering broadband to everybody,” Orton said.

Both Soglin and Orton acknowledged the steep cost of providing this service but remained positive about attracting private sector partnerships and federal grant money.

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“I think what is critical is we won’t get the private partner unless we’re willing to go down this road,” Soglin said. “I do think given the commitment we’ve already made, given where we’re going … that will attract attention of people in the industry.”

He said he hopes to hear from potential partners within a year or less. Orton said he hopes that federal grant money for technology infrastructure will be available within a year, citing presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign promise to provide high-speed Internet to everyone.

“We might be, next spring, shovel-ready for whatever federal money is possibly available for cities to pursue these kinds of things,” Orton said.

Ald. Mark Clear, District 19, a member of the Digital Technology Committee, said the key is ensuring the city can leverage the high cost.

“If you could get the feds and or private investment to pay for a significant portion of the infrastructure cost, then it starts to make more economic sense,” Clear said, adding that there still needs to be a strong business case whether or not the project receives grant money.

The Digital Technology Committee, created in 2013 with a focus to close the digital divide, will review the report at its next meeting Thursday before coming before the City Council later in the fall.

“This is really the city facing a fundamental decision on whether it’s going to have a public based infrastructure,” Orton said.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.