BRISTOL – The city budget for the new fiscal year contains $100,000 for a study on the feasibility of creating a citywide high speed fiber optic network, which could possibly be the first such municipal-owned network in Connecticut.
Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu sees it as the wave of the future. “Even we don’t know where this is going, but it’s worth exploring,” she said.
In theory, a municipal network would allow Bristol to sell its own internet service and compete with the larger companies.
The idea started with Scott Smith, who heads the IT department for the city and the schools.
There has been lots of talk all over the country about building these kinds of networks, Smith said.
The city has already built a fiber network that connects all 37 city and school locations.
“So we said ‘how can we build out that and make it cost effective?’ In places where they’ve done this there’s definitely been a return on investment, because of economic development, rising property values, and the fact that the citizens get buy in with a potentially lower price and higher speed for their internet access,” he said.
Smith credits Ammon, Idaho, as building the first municipal-owned fiber network and soliciting internet service providers to provide the service, because the small city wasn’t getting good internet service from commercial providers. Ammon saw prices drop and service improve because suddenly there was competition.
Rural Connecticut has internet problems. Smith said he has been in touch with officials from Sharon, who have formed a nonprofit group called Northwest Connect, to work on building a regional high speed fiber network.
Last year Zoppo-Sassu brought the idea for the study to the capital improvement committee. It didn’t get approved for the city’s 10 Year Capital Improvement List because people didn’t have enough information about it then.
Since then Smith has collected more information, the idea was reintroduced, and people knew enough about it to be intrigued, Zoppo-Sassu said. “The next logical step is to do the study.”
When the joint meeting of the City Council and Board of Finance adopted the city’s capital budget in May, finance board member Cheryl Thibeault wanted to remove the $100,000 for the study, saying the city shouldn’t dabble in this field. She couldn’t get a majority to back her.
“I think we would find that by the time we even have [the network] finished, it probably would be obsolete. I don’t think this is a good investment. I know this is just for a study but $100,000 can go a long way in other areas,” she said.
Zoppo-Sassu and Smith dismiss Thibeault’s claims of expertise on the technology.
Fiber optic technology, the actual glass infrastructure, is the expensive part of the project and it has about a 50-year lifespan, “which is pretty good,” Smith said.
Once it’s in place, you could lease it to AT&T or another ISP, which could pay for the project, he said.
“That’s the purpose of the study,” Zoppo-Sassu said. “We don’t know the answer to any of these questions yet.”
Thibeault also criticized a projected $65 million cost for the network.
Zoppo-Sassu said the $65 million figure was just a placeholder estimate. Some people are stuck on that figure, but they are just politicizing the issue because it’s an election year, she said.
“We don’t know what it’s going to cost so that’s why we asked for the $100,000 for the study, in order to do due diligence,” she said. “We plan to reach out to ESPN and Bristol Hospital, and maybe some other businesses that have the expertise to help us, to be an advisory group.”
Now that the $100,000 has been approved, the next step is to look at studies that have already been done elsewhere and look for a suitable consultant, Smith said.
By the start of budget season next year, he said, “we should have some estimates to bring to the Board of Finance so that they can make an informed decision on whether we move forward or not.”
Smith said there are different ways to build these types of networks. As far as he knows, Bristol is the only municipality in Connecticut considering a municipal-owned network, although he said some others – including Manchester and New Haven – are looking at similar ideas.
“It has always been my contention that the community should own the network,” he said. “We should control the network but we’re not going to be the ISP. In other words we’re not going to provide the service. We’re going to let other people offer the service and we’ll give them the infrastructure for it.”
Zoppo-Sassu predicts a municipal-owned network would be an incentive for companies to want to invest in Centre Square downtown and other places in the city.
Smith also sees it as an opportunity to bridge Bristol’s digital divide, with special rates for disadvantaged households who currently cannot afford internet access at home.
Zoppo-Sassu compared it to the origins of ESPN. Some 40 years ago, Bill Rasmussen walked into City Hall with an idea to buy property here and broadcast sports using satellite technology, which was radical and new then. Several other local communities had already turned him down.
“What would have happened if we didn’t take him seriously? It was a 4-3 vote by the Redevelopment Authority that night,” said Zoppo-Sassu, who recalled that her father was on the Board of Finance at the time. “My father was one of those people going ‘who is this guy? He’s nuts!’”
“We need to do what’s best for Bristol today,” she added. “We need to think about 10 years from now, and we need to think about 50 years from now. What is this town going to look like? And what role do we play to shape that future?”
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.