New Haven abandons plans to build high-speed public internet service
Because the Biden administration chose to “build back better,” the Elicker administration ultimately chose not to build its own new municipal broadband network.
Mayor Justin Elicker and the city’s economic development officer, Dean Mack, explained the change in plans during an online interview with The Independent.
They said that instead of pursuing tentative plans to build a new municipal broadband network, City Hall intends to focus its Internet access expansion efforts on bolstering existing, mostly private, services.
This includes promoting underutilized federal grants for low-income residents, encouraging current providers to pursue citywide expansion plans, trying to attract new high-speed internet companies to come to town and the use of a wealth of federal dollars to improve fair Internet access. across New Haven, especially for residents of multifamily homes and apartment buildings.
The interview took place approximately eight months after the city hired a consulting firm called Magellan Advisers to conduct a “Broadband Feasibility Study” to better understand current Internet access in New Haven and to recommend specific actions the city should take to improve that network. This study was presented at a public meeting in January as a potential first step toward the Elicker administration building a municipal and public broadband network.
The interview also took place more than a year after the Alders approved $1 million in the city’s capital budget to help launch a municipal broadband pilot program and master planning process– and nearly a decade after the Harp administration of the day tried unsuccessfully to design a statewide fiber optic pilot that would provide faster and cheaper Internet service than that offered by cable and telephone companies .
During the independent interview on this latest “Broadband Feasibility Study,” Elicker and Mack said that after reviewing Magellan’s findings and after evaluating ISPs’ current expansion plans private and – most importantly – after taking stock of the glut of federal dollars spent on improving high-quality internet access in a “fair” way, the city has largely abandoned any plans to build its own public network at broadband.
“We realize now that there is market interest in doing what we thought we were doing ourselves,” Mack said. “It made us pause on that.”
“When we started this process, there weren’t billions of dollars going into equity-focused broadband expansion,” Elicker said. Now, thanks to the federal government passing major public spending bills like the American Rescue Plan Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act, there are indeed billions dollars available nationwide to improve Internet networks – with tens of millions of those federal broadband dollars en route to Connecticut.
Mac agreed. “We want to make sure we’re not spending local tax money on something that the federal government will already cover,” he said.
So. What exactly did Magellan find during his months of consultation with the city? And what does the Elicker administration plan to do now in its efforts to improve internet access across the city?
Mack said the city initially had a $125,000 contract with Magellan, but ultimately only paid them about $40,000 for the first third of their contract work.
“They did a lot more interviews than they signed up,” Mack said, and they “spent a lot more time doing” investigative work on internet offerings and access levels. currents in the city than they had originally planned.
After holding 50 meetings with 34 different organizations and pulling together some “key findings,” Mack said, the city decided to end its contract with Magellan in May and walk away from the rest of the scope of work, which included the study and presentation of recommendations around a possible municipal broadband network.
Among Magellan’s key findings is that the existing telecommunications giant, Comcast, already covers the whole city with its Internet service, and that the fellow telecommunications giant Frontier “Told us they were going to build a city-wide fiber optic network, which doesn’t exist today,” Mack said. (Small-scale fiber provider GoNetSpeed currently covers about a quarter of the city, according to a slideshow of the city provided to the Independent by Mack.)
Mack said Frontier plans to expand its citywide fiber optic network throughout 2023 – with a big caveat being that this network will be made available to single and two-family homes, but not necessarily larger buildings of five or more units.
Which was another key discovery from Magellan. It is much “more difficult to install the fiber in these types of [larger apartment] buildings,” Mack said, because of “outdated copper wiring” inside those buildings.
“There may not be as much incentive for the private market to serve” these large apartment buildings, he said, even though Frontier is planning a fairly large fiber expansion. “We found that the lack of internet access must be addressed intentionally.”
Mack also said the Federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP)already provides a level of subsidy to low-income residents high enough to make internet access essentially free for those who need it most. This program is “underutilized right now,” Mack said.
And he said there are other high-speed internet companies — like Google Fiber, UTOPIA and SiFi Networks — that don’t currently operate in New Haven but might be interested in entering the city’s market.
Regarding the next steps for the Elicker administration, Elicker and Mack said the city plans to:
- Identify exactly how widely used the Affordable Connectivity Subsidy Program is, analyze the remaining gaps, and then conduct a public awareness campaign to encourage eligible residents to Register.
- Negotiate with other fiber optic internet companies not currently operating in New Haven to see if and how they would be willing to bring their business to the city.
- Work with the city’s current fiber partner, Crown Castle, to see if and how to boost public internet access in city buildings. (See the slides below providing more details on the city’s next steps.)
“Magellan really helped us in the discovery phase of this project,” Mack said. “It was really helpful to have experts on our side, asking the right questions of stakeholders, helping us identify gaps.” The next step, he said, is to find ways to use all that federal money and work with private internet partners to expand fiber access as much as possible across the city.