A plan to bridge the “digital divide” and expand Madison’s limited high-speed internet network to every resident and business in the city would take roughly more than $200 million in public and private investment, according to a study released by city leaders on Monday.
The plan, recommended in a report by CTC Technology and Energy, would build on the existing network of fiber-optic cable that extends throughout Madison and brings broadband internet access to schools, libraries, fire stations and other public buildings. The city chose CTC to analyze the feasibility of a citywide fiber network in late 2015.
In the report, CTC recommended the city pursue an approach in which the city would build and own the fiber network. Private businesses would then provide internet service and build lines connecting individual users to the network. Similar shared investment models are already underway in Westminster, Maryland, and Huntsville, Alabama.
“We are going to be a world-class city for everyone,” Mayor Paul Soglin said Monday. “We’re talking about every school, every neighborhood center, every household in Madison, Wisconsin.”
The “digital divide” — the disparity between people with access to modern information and communications technology and those without — has been a priority for city leaders in recent years.
In 2013, the city created the Digital Technology Committee to advise the mayor and City Council, a primary focus of which is addressing the digital divide.
Other proposed models for building and operating the network have varying degrees of private and public investment.
The report’s authors recommended the shared investment approach because of the fiber network “backbone” already in place throughout much of the city.
The project would extend fiber much deeper into neighborhoods than the current network.
“Such a model will enable the city to make use of its existing fiber assets, and retain some degree of control over equity and ubiquity issues,” the report said.
Since companies offering services through the fiber network will be under contract, city leaders can ensure those companies meet established quality standards, Soglin said.
The cost to build the network — short of the lines connecting individual users — would be about $150 million. How much of that funding would fall on the city depends on how much private companies would be willing to invest in the project and how much funding the city can get from the federal government, said Barry Orton, chairman of the Citywide Broadband Subcommittee and a professor emeritus at UW-Madison.
Private companies would build the connections from the network to individual homes and businesses, at a cost of another $50 million to $60 million, he said.
Soglin said covering the cost for the project would be a challenge, but said the move would foster competition among internet service providers and force them to improve their services.
“How could anybody lose under those circumstances? It would also be healthy for them and bring those companies to the 21st century as well,” Soglin said.
Wisconsin state law lists a number of conditions that must be met for a city to be able to provide internet service, including a feasibility study and public hearings.
“It will be a fight, politically and economically, with the companies that would rather have monopoly kind of control,” Orton said.
In 2014, the City Council approved a two-year pilot program to bring broadband Internet services to four low-income areas in Madison. The pilot was designed to help vulnerable groups of people who might not have previously had access to broadband service because there wasn’t service available in their neighborhoods or because they couldn’t afford it. The program offers internet service for about $10 per month through ResTech Services LLC.
The city’s Digital Technology Committee will discuss the CTC report at its meeting Thursday.
The City Council will host a public hearing about the recommended plan sometime in the coming months.