Superior, Duluth seeks way to access faster, cheaper internet service – Duluth News Tribune

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson offered a harsh assessment of the city’s leading broadband provider: Spectrum Internet.

“Right now, Spectrum is the only broadband provider in Duluth. They know it and your bills show it. Spectrum even raised prices during a pandemic – and this community, held hostage, had no choice but to pay or forfeit access,” she said in her speech on the state of the city at the beginning of the month.

“It’s unacceptable. Personally, I think it’s immoral,” Larson said.

Spectrum spokeswoman Kimberly Noetzel responded to Larson’s criticism with a statement defending the company’s service.

“The fact is, Spectrum Internet is available to the overwhelming majority of the city, starting at speeds of 100 megabits per second with nationally consistent pricing and no data caps, modem fees, or contracts,” she wrote.

Regarding affordability, Noetzel noted, “We offer low-cost broadband service to eligible families and seniors for just $17.99/month – and it’s been available in Duluth for four years. And we responded to the pandemic by connecting 450,000 students, teachers and their families – who didn’t have broadband service – for 60 days, for free; protect 700,000 customers from being disconnected due to economic hardship related to COVID-19; and forgiving $85 million in past due balances to customers.

But Larson remains unimpressed and offered the city to spend $1 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds “to entice new service providers to enter the market” and compete with Spectrum.

Meanwhile, across the river in Superior, aggressive efforts to spur competition from Spectrum in the Twin Ports are taking on even clearer form. During a Thursday night listening session, representatives from EntryPoint Networks outlined plans to potentially build an open-access fiber optic network in Superior at an estimated cost of about $31 million.

The Salt Lake City, Utah-based company has worked with the city of Superior for a few years now, and EntryPoint president Jeff Christensen explained how the proposed fiber system, called Connect Superior, would work.

He compared an open access network to a shared road network “where you have a freeway and then you allow all traffic to cross that freeway”.

“It’s a robust digital road, and it’s open, in this case, to any ISP (internet service provider) that will follow the rules,” Christensen said.

For its part, the city would require users of this fiber network to pay a toll or fee that would be used to help pay for the costs of building and maintaining the system.

A fiber optic cable is shown on a spool in a storage area. Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

Reuters

Christensen said the fiber network would provide customers with 1 gigabit per second speeds for uploads and downloads, likely at a monthly cost of around $50 plus or minus 10%. He said the network would need a minimum of around 3,000 subscribers to be sustainable and is likely to exceed that threshold easily.

Superior’s neighbor to the west is watching closely, although Noah Schuchman, Duluth’s chief administrative officer, conceded, “We’re not as advanced.”

“We are still looking at all available options,” including the idea of ​​city-owned fiber infrastructure, Schuchman said.

Annette Meeks, founder and CEO of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, advises officials in Duluth and Superior to proceed with caution, however.

For starters, it challenges the claim that twin ports lack adequate broadband competition.

“Duluth is not hostage to a single vendor. You have several suppliers. You have, as I am told, excellent satellite service. I haven’t been to Duluth since the pandemic, but I haven’t had any problems in Duluth,” she said.

But Jodi Slick, founder and CEO of Ecolibrium3, said there were places in Lincoln Park that still lacked access to decent service, due to topographical challenges and inadequate coverage. She said Federal Communication Commission maps showing coverage in Duluth are misleading because they’re broken down by U.S. census tracts and show service in an area, even though it’s not available to all properties.

Schuchman agreed, saying, “I think one of the challenges we have is that there are areas of the city that don’t have broadband, and so, while the city in general the done, and we’re considered ‘served’ at this point, we also have some shortcomings. So it’s very important for the city and the community to close those gaps and make sure that we have an equitable distribution of that access and that it’s consistent and of high quality.

Tyler Cooper, editor of

Broadband Now

said the situation in the Twin Ports is “unfortunately, a story shared by cities and towns across the United States.”

“Often a given supplier will own the telephone lines, while another will own the cable lines. This creates a de facto duopoly which is one of the main obstacles to the expansion of broadband across the country,” he said.

As for the proposal in Superior, Cooper said; “Municipal broadband as a concept is one of the most effective methods of combating this stagnation, because in places where there is a public option, prices tend to be lower and speeds tend to be higher. When a city installs a public fiber optic network, for example, the private sector has a strong incentive to upgrade existing connections such as DSL (digital subscriber lines), which no longer serve residents adequately by 2021.”

Although there may be several smaller service providers, Chris Mitchell, director of a broadband community networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance, said: “There is no meaningful competition on the market, and it’s very clear, based on everyone’s experience. the experience of trying to take service from different vendors.

“When people move, they often ask on Nextdoor what service to get. And you can just watch those conversations to see what’s really available. It’s usually just the cable and phone company, and then there’s also carriers that often use the telco infrastructure, or use some sort of wireless approach. But that’s usually not competitive with the high speeds that families need and want,” Mitchell said.

Meeks suggested city funds could be better used to cover essential functions, such as city streets and public safety. She noted that Duluth recently increased its sales tax to help pay for street improvements.

“When you have to raise taxes to take care of one of these essential functions, the last thing you want to do is think about spending millions of dollars on something that is not an essential function and which the private sector provides. already,” she said. .

But Schuchman said that while the growing importance of internet service has been evident for some time, “the past year has really highlighted how important it is to have good, reliable access for everyone in Duluth. “

Meeks suggested the Twin Ports would be wise to learn from previous failures to launch government-owned broadband service, like the fiber optic network built in Lake County, then sold in 2018 at a loss of more than $40 million.


Contractors laid more than 1,200 miles of fiber optic cable in the construction of Lake Connections, Lake County’s municipal broadband project. (News-Chronicle file)

“It’s like Whack-A-Mole. These bad ideas keep popping up,” she said.

“It’s really more like ‘The Music Man’,” Meeks said. “These consultants are popping up around town, making overly optimistic projections not only of the need or desire, if you will, for city-owned broadband, but they’re also vastly exaggerating the number of subscribers you’re likely to get. get if you build that,” Meeks said.

SEE ALSO:


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But Mitchell said the failure of the Lake County network is far from iconic. “There’s a different dynamic for a low-key town like Superior and a whole very rural county.
“The important thing is that the city takes this seriously, does its due diligence, and comes up with a plan it’s comfortable with,” he said.

Mitchell pointed to the very successful system launched by EntryPoint in Ammon, Idaho, and said, “It’s such a different model from what Lake County has done that it’s hard to even talk about the similarities.”

Schuchman said Duluth intends to proceed in a considered manner and will not commit to any kind of timeline yet.

“I’d rather we were right than fast,” he said.

Nevertheless, Schuchman considers the efforts currently underway in Superior instructive and useful.

“It can only be helpful to see a neighboring community go through similar explorations. And it’s certainly a useful case study that we’re watching closely and will have access to,” he said.

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