About ten people on Tuesday spoke out against a closed-session item on the agenda prior to the regular Davis City Council meeting. The item was simply noticed as “Agency Negotiators” between the city and Astound Broadband, LLC d/b/a Wave, a Washington limited liability company. Under negotiation were price and terms of payment.
The council ended up taking public comment and finishing the item following the regular meeting. There was no reportable action.
Following public comment, Mayor Brett Lee said, “This will be the first opportunity that the council has had to discuss this item in the background of negotiations.”
He acknowledged the lack of information contained on the agenda about the closed session item: “The closed session items are rather skeletal – it’s a one-liner about what it is.” He would add, “This gives us a chance to better understand the negotiations that have been going on.”
The council has not had a chance to weigh in. A consent agenda item with a proposed agreement was removed from the council agenda in early February. There was no announcement as to why.
That staff report noted that the city had been negotiating with Astound to provide a fiber-optic network.
Staff writes, “Working with the city attorney on this agreement, Astound will bring fiber-optic cable into the City of Davis using existing City owned conduit to supply high speed network to their existing and future customers.
“In exchange for using City conduit, Astound will build a fiber-optic network to some city buildings, well/pump sites, Yolo County buildings and a connection to UC Davis. This new network will be available to city/county/UCD free of charge and provides more capacity and redundancy to the existing computer/phone network.”
Staff notes that the city has relied on two fiber-optic network deployments for years in order to run the city, county and school district computer and phone networks. The city owns and maintains one of these.
“The second network was part of the cable franchise agreement with Comcast that expired in October of 2018 and is cost prohibitive to continue using,” the city writes.
There are several aspects of the agreement that seem to be drawing fire – one is the lack of the city receiving benefit from the agreement.
As Rob Nickerson, owner of Omsoft Technologies, pointed out in February, “This agreement is backwards.”
He said, “This is a big giveaway to a company, that according to a statement of its representative that was at the last broadband advisory taskforce, makes 95 cents of profit on every dollar of internet revenue it brings in.”
That remained one of the themes on Tuesday during public comment. (Thanks to CivEnergy for providing the Vanguard with an audio recording of the public comments).
Johannes Troost read a Utility Rate Advisory Committee motion from March 17: “URAC believes that the city council should pause and do its further due diligence in reference to the contract for Astound and the fiber optic network.”
He added: “It was our hope that the council would consider the value of our assets… and consider options including but not limited to a city owned system.”
Doug Walter, president of DCN, stated that “while meeting the city’s IT needs, would most likely foreclose the kind of content neutral, accessible and secure gigabit broadband network that most of the people that are here tonight support. It would also most likely prevent us from addressing the digital divide and student achievement gap issues. It could ease student development of local economic vitality.”
Matt Williams, Chair of the city’s Finance and Budget Commission, pointed out that “the cost to the city of putting its own fiber in a conduit is very very low.”
The current lease proposal is $0, Mr. Williams pointed out. He noted, “[S]o it’s not something that I as the Chair of the Finance and Budget Committee would consider a great addition to the city’s financial health.”
He told the council: “We need you to look in your due diligence to something more than the offer that’s on the table which is a zero dollar lease. You may be constrained because of the Brown Act to not consider dollar amounts that are greater than zero…”
He argued, “You really haven’t made a policy decision of whether or not lease for zero dollars…”
He added that it was a “mistake” the first discussion happened in closed session.
Rob Nickerson also spoke asking the council: “Please take seriously this opportunity to develop a long term revenue stream for the city, you can charge money to a private company for access to your conduit, you can put in fiber on your own to lease to this company over here, please don’t short yourself.”
As noted, council took no action on this item, which continues to attract community pushback and controversy.
City Manager Mike Webb told the Vanguard: “Staff continues to gather information about the proposed Astound agreement and will return to Council at such time that additional information and/or a proposed agreement is ready for review.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting
Correction: Doug Walter was inappropriately identified as being from DCC, that a was a typo, he is currently the President of Davis Community Network (DCN).