The Davis City Council is moving forward with interest on the municipal broadband proposal, asking staff to come back with additional information regarding the financial and technical options.
A number of public commenters pushed back on concerns raised by Dan Carson in op-eds in the Enterprise and Vanguard over the weekend. Councilmember Carson, while not disputing the “benefits of improved high-speed broadband for economic development, education, technological innovation, and addressing the digital divide,” nevertheless questioned how to get those benefits “without saddling our taxpayers with huge financial risks.”
Other members of council had questions and concerns as well. As Councilmember Will Arnold put it, “We can’t approve a municipal fiber network today, but we can kill it. I’m not ready to kill it.”
So instead he asked staff to bring back, at a future meeting, a plan for further study of financial aspects as well a technical study that is needed to figure out how to make it work.
There was considerable pushback by the attending public against the caution of Councilmember Carson.
As one member of the public put it, the question is whether we should pursue the municipally owned broadband network, “we have our bat force [staff’s derivative commission, the Broadband Advisory Task Force, or BATF] saying yes we should pursue this, and staff is saying no.” She said, “I was astonished to see Dan Carson’s editorial in the Davis Enterprise. It would seem like he’s already decided… in advance of today’s staff presentation and without hearing comment from the community or his own fellow councilmembers. That he’s decided that Davis should not control its own broadband network.”
Rob Nickerson from Omsoft said “our initial proposition remains viable, community investment with municipal ownership.” He said that they never wanted such an ISP to directly challenge the largest businesses in the market, but rather, “We do need to and have advocated for a change in the dynamics of the internet marketplace as it is today.”
He called for “internet access as a utility with a neutral, trusted party holding the infrastructure which is this municipality rather than a monopolist holding the infrastructure which we all need to use.” He said this effort “would provide benefits across multiple sectors of our community.”
Dan Carson, while serving as a bit of a lightning rod, had his defenders among his colleagues.
Councilmember Lucas Frerichs responded, “I think it’s unfortunate that he was ridiculed for putting his perspective out there,” noting that a critical perspective was not only needed but helpful, even as he stated, “I don’t one hundred percent agree with it.”
Will Arnold stated, “I appreciated my colleague Dan Carson’s op-ed… He is a cautious (person), very knowledgeable about finances… There wasn’t really any point that he wrote that I disagreed with. There are a lot of risks out there. Whether they’re insurmountable, we’ll find out.”
He said, “Any suggestion that he should have… kept his mouth shut… I don’t want that – I don’t want that to be the takeaway for any of my colleagues.”
Dan Carson on Tuesday added to his comments from the weekend by noting that the more questions he has asked, the more confirmed he is that “this is going to be a dead end.”
He noted not only is it “too costly” but also that it has “weak support.”
The consultant’s survey showed, “Only 21 percent of those surveyed said they would definitely buy into a municipal system… They’ve polled in a lot of places and they’ve never seen such weak support for this kind of a system.”
He said, “It suggests that even those numbers that (are) in that feasibility report are too optimistic. It’s a more grim situation than that.”
Nevertheless, he said stated, “I’m not going to oppose my colleagues asking for more information.”
Mayor Brett Lee was also skeptical. He told his colleagues, “I’m a little concerned about a public utility” where the city provides the network and infrastructure for access where “all residents are charged for that service,” regardless of whether they might want it.
He said he was curious at full buildout what the fee structure would look like, but noted on the flip side of Dan Carson’s point, a full 15 percent polled said they were not interested in broadband service.
“I think we need to be very careful when we talk about this digital divide, that there are people who choose not to spend their money on access,” he said.
“I’m supportive of doing further investigations,” he said. “The key to me is unrecovered costs.”
Lucas Frerichs added, “I care about the costs… I think it’s a major consideration for the possibility for us moving forward on something like this.” He added, “I appreciate that there’s a variety of other factors that go into this.”
He noted that there are a number of reasons why California lags behind other states in municipal networks. For him there are still some major questions out there, major pitfalls and “there are more answers that are needed.”
Gloria Partida noted, “The one thing that’s thrown out a lot is the digital divide as an argument for doing this – we’re doing this for the betterment of people, the people who don’t have access. I’m a little uncomfortable with that because if we really wanted to do something about the digital divide, we would set up hotspots where people could access the internet for free.”
She noted that there are a lot of families for whom, if you gave them broadband, would not have the computer hardware to be able to access it.
Even Will Arnold, who seemed solidly behind the idea, acknowledged that, while he likes “the idea of having a municipal network,” at the same time, ‘There are legitimate questions that we don’t know.” His answer: “Let’s find out.”
Moving forward, the council supported a motion for staff to bring back the proposal after further discussion.
“Direct staff to come back with a plan to provide council information on what a phased approach would entail technically and financially and potential cost mechanisms.”
Council was unanimously in support of this direction.
—David M. Greenwald reporting