Because the Biden Administration has chosen to “build back better,” the Elicker Administration has chosen not to build its own new municipal broadband network after all.
Mayor Justin Elicker and city Economic Development Officer Dean Mack explained that shift in plans during an internet-focused interview with the Independent.
They said that, instead of pursuing tentative plans to build out a new municipal broadband network, City Hall intends to focus its internet-access-expansion efforts on boosting existing, mostly private, services.
That includes promoting underused federal subsidies for low-income residents, encouraging current providers to follow through on their citywide expansion plans, trying to attract new high-speed internet companies to come to town, and using a wealth of federal dollars to improve equitable internet access across New Haven, particularly for residents of multi-family houses and apartment buildings.
The interview took place roughly 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 steps the city should take to improve that network. That study was pitched at a January public meeting as a potential first step towards the Elicker Administration building out a municipal, publicly-owned broadband network.
The interview also took place more than a year after alders approved $1 million in the city capital budget to help kickstart a municipal broadband pilot program and master planning process — and nearly a decade after the then-Harp Administration tried in vain to craft a statewide fiber-optic pilot that would provide faster and less expensive internet service than offered by the cable and phone companies.
During the Independent interview on this latest “broadband feasibility study,” both Elicker and Mack said that, after reviewing Magellan’s findings, and after assessing current private internet service providers’ expansion plans, and — most importantly — after taking stock of the surfeit of federal dollars dedicated to improving high-quality internet access in an “equitable” way, the city has largely dropped any plans to build its own public broadband network.
“We are realizing now that there’s market interest in doing what we were thinking of doing ourselves,” Mack said. “That made us put a pause on that.”
“When we started this process, there weren’t billions of dollars going into broadband expansion focused on equity,” Elicker said. Now, thanks to the federal government’s passage of large public-spending bills like the American Rescue Plan Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act, there are indeed billions of dollars available nationwide for improving internet networks — with tens of millions of those federal broadband bucks en route to Connecticut.
Mack agreed. “We want to make sure we’re not spending local tax dollars on something the federal government will already be covering,” he said.
So. What exactly did Magellan find during its months-long consulting gig with the city? And what does the Elicker Administration plan to do now in its effort to boost internet access around town?
Mack said that the city initially had a $125,000 contract with Magellan, but that it ended up paying them only around $40,000 for the first third of their contracted work.
“They did far more interviews than they had signed up for,” Mack said, and they “spent a lot more time doing” investigative work into the city’s current internet offerings and access levels than they had initially planned for.
After holding 50 meetings with 34 different organizations and putting together some “key findings,” Mack said, the city decided to end its contract with Magellan in May and pivot away from the rest of the scope of work, which included studying and putting forward recommendations around a potential municipal broadband network.
Some of Magellan’s key findings included that the existing telecom giant Comcast already does cover the full city with its internet service, and the fellow telecom giant Frontier “told us they are going to be building out a citywide fiber network, which does not exist today,” Mack said. (The smaller-scale fiber provider GoNetSpeed currently covers roughly a quarter of the city, according to a city slide-show presentation provided to the Independent by Mack.)
Mack said Frontier plans to build out its citywide fiber network throughout 2023 — with one big caveat being that that network will be made available to single- and two-family homes, but not necessarily to larger, five-unit-plus apartment buildings.
Which was another key finding of Magellan’s. It is much “more difficult to install fiber in those types of [larger apartment] buildings,” Mack said, because of “outdated” copper wiring inside of those buildings.
“There may not be as much of an incentive by the private market to serve” those larger apartment buildings, he said, even as Frontier does plan on a pretty significant fiber expansion. “We found that the lack of internet access has to be addressed intentionally.”
Mack also said that the federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) does already provide a level of subsidy to low-income residents that is high enough to make internet access essentially cost-free for those most in need. That program is “underused right now,” Mack said.
And he said that there are other high-speed internet companies — like Google Fiber, UTOPIA, and SiFi Networks — that don’t currently operate in New Haven, but that may be interested in moving into the city’s market.
As for the Elicker Administration’s next steps, Elicker and Mack said the city plans to:
- Identify exactly how widely used the Affordable Connectivity subsidy program is, analyze what gaps remain, and then conduct a public outreach campaign to encourage eligible residents to sign up.
- Negotiate with other fiber internet companies that don’t currently operate in New Haven to see if and how they’d 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 publicly accessible internet at municipal buildings. (See below for slides providing more details about the city’s next steps.)
“Magellan really helped us out with the discovery phase of this project,” Mack said. “It was definitely helpful to have experts by our side, asking the right questions of stakeholders, helping us to identify what the gaps are.” Up next, he said, is finding ways to use all of this federal money and working with private internet partners to expand fiber access as much as possible citywide.