The release of a feasibility report on installing fiber internet throughout Madison has me filled with cautious optimism. Fiber networks offer speeds up to 1 gigabit. The study proposes installing a network that would allow every home and business in the city access to this ultra-fast broadband.
It would be a major improvement over current broadband options.
Charter Spectrum comes in at 60 Mbps, a whopping 6% of gigabit speed. This is what I have now. As a bonus, I get that famous Charter customer service, complete with persistent telemarketing calls trying to upsell me on a service I already pay for.
TDS, on the other hand, offers gigabit service to some parts of Dane County but service locations are limited mostly to places like Fitchburg, Middleton and — oddly — Black Earth. I can’t get it on the north side of Madison. Plus, the TDS gigabit service is expensive. They also require that you buy a bundle package of TV and landline service. Watching cable and using a landline? Why do I need to buy 1990s’ services to get 2020s’ internet?
TDS’s high prices aren’t an anomaly. A lack of competition makes gigabit service more expensive. Last year, Consumerist published an article that showed that AT&T charges up to $40 more for fiber internet service in markets where they don’t have to compete with Google Fiber.
In the proposed study, the city of Madison would own the backbone of the network but a private company would operate it. That’s just like how many utilities operate. It is time we start thinking about broadband access as a utility, much like water, gas and electricity. We get private-sector efficiencies but, since the city hands out the contracts, it can put in stipulations so we don’t get those private-sector price gouges.
How could fiber service make a difference? Let me use my own work as an example. At my full-time job, I have a stable, fast connection that allows me to quickly upload video drafts and share them with my bosses and partners. My freelance video work at home involves long, frustrating sessions of interrupted uploads and failed FTP logins. On multiple occasions, I have wasted an hour or two trying to upload a multigig file that would have uploaded on the first try at my full-time job. That’s time I could have spent working on other projects or spent with my family.
Right now, I can’t quite financially justify upgrading from my consumer internet to a business class internet connection. However, cheaper high-end broadband service brought about by increased competition would convince me to make the switch, particularly as more and more clients want the huge file sizes of 4K video.
The other area where fiber service could help my freelance work is through telepresence. I lead communications and storytelling trainings, mostly for nonprofits. For clients outside of the Midwest, airfare is a significant cost barrier. Madison’s high airfare prices put me at a competitive disadvantage compared to consultants located near hubs. More and more people are requesting webinars and consulting over Skype and Google Hangout. Reliable, stable, fast service makes that work easier.
I’m just one person who does a little bit of freelancing work. But these are two major ways affordable fiber could help me out. That’s not even factoring in applications and uses for high-bandwidth fiber that will become common over the next 10 years as more and more communities roll out fiber access.
As the report on Madison’s proposed fiber network states, “Innovation is possible everywhere, but individuals living in a place with affordable high-speed connections have a natural advantage coming up with a new idea or when trying to turn a prototype into a product.”
We don’t need Madison to be a little Silicon Valley or the next Austin to be a successful city. But we do need the infrastructure to give people the support they need.
More importantly, we need to make sure everyone can get access to these connections. The study showed how many households do have some form of internet access but also that there are still gaps to be filled. The barriers of entry to some fields like web video, programming and graphic design have never been lower, but significant barriers still exist. It makes moral and economic sense to reduce as many of these barriers as possible for all of our citizens.
That said, there are still a few questions before the city should move forward.
Installation comes with a hefty price tag, $144 million or more. Ald. Mark Clear makes an excellent point that we need to figure out how much of the cost will be covered by private partners and federal grants.
Then there is the question of expandability. Is this a strong enough backbone to someday support a countywide network? Our various municipalities don’t have an amazing track record for collaboration, but there are a lot of federal dollars available for rural broadband access. Grants could cover a lot of the cost of hooking up towns and villages in the area. If Madison gets fiber service, the suburbs will want it too. It might be worth checking if a shared infrastructure could cut costs for everyone. The Chippewa Valley Internetworking Consortium helps share broadband infrastructure costs between different agencies around Eau Claire; perhaps a similar model could work for south-central Wisconsin municipalities.
Even with these questions, municipal fiber is an exciting prospect for Madison, one that the city should continue to investigate.