There has been some criticism of Dan Carson’s op-ed and his approach, which some might argue are overly cautious. However, it is important to recognize that, while he views the municipal broadband network as “a huge financial risk,” my read is that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s opposed to it.
In his op-ed he cites the consultant reports from CCG Consulting and Finley Engineering, who were contracted in order “to assess the feasibility of a municipal fiber network in Davis and whether local residents would sign up for it.”
He writes: “They determined that a municipal broadband project would be costly and risky and that community interest in committing to pay for such a service is weak.”
Such a network, they found, would be “costly,” running at around $100 million, similar ventures have failed in some locations, and thus “the financial projections for building fiber within the city were not as good as the city had hoped for.”
However, he notes, “Despite the troubling findings in the CCG and Finley Engineering reports, task force members remain steadfast in their support of the concept of a municipal fiber system. They are asking the city to spend more money on studying such ideas as building a municipal fiber network in stages or levying assessments instead of taxes to pay for it.”
And his key point is this one: “Nobody disputes the benefits of improved high-speed broadband for economic development, education, technological innovation, and addressing the digital divide. The question is, how do we get these benefits without saddling our taxpayers with huge financial risks? We already face an $8 million a year funding gap for basic city services over the next 20 years.”
To interpret this op-ed as opposition, as opposed to caution, seems like a mistake.
For their part, the letter from chair Chris Clements acknowledges that the financial component is vital. Indeed, he writes in the letter agreed upon by the rest of the commission, “[o]ne message was recurring more than any other. That was the need to spend some time and effort to understand the financial options that could be used to make this program a success.”
They add, “It is the recommendation of the BATF [Broadband Advisory Task Force] that the City engage with someone with background and expertise in order to understand the financial possibilities that will make the deployment possible.”
At the same time, I see critical needs for broadband in Davis. There are great needs to upgrade the city’s broadband if it wishes to engage in the kind of economic development efforts that it seeks.
As Mr. Clements points out, the project “would also pave the way for massive economic development.” He adds: “The network would create the ability for businesses around the world to employ work from home professionals in the City of Davis.”
Furthermore, there is the digital divide and social equity piece that would be filled in as well. The letter presents this in terms of students, noting that the university would be able to “provide parity to its students who currently experience a massive divide between the campus and home networking experience. It would create the ability for elementary and high school students to complete their coursework at home and not have to go back to the school library to be connected.”
But, as we know as well, low income people have much less access to high speed internet service than people who are of greater means.
The economic development piece is underestimated, I think, in Councilmember Carson’s otherwise thoughtful piece.
Matt Williams, in sharing the BATF’s reasoning, focused on economic developing, noting that without a municipal fiber program “there will be significant obstacles to Economic Development” and that “significant economic development opportunities will become available if the City does ‘own the last mile’ of the local Davis fiber communications network.”
He notes: “Prospect companies thinking about locating in Davis will see a proactive, in-place telecommunications deployment, ready for their immediate use, rather than an ad-hoc, reactive telecommunications deployment that requires expensive and time-consuming case-by-case buildout.”
Finally, “Being able to market ‘The City of Davis’ as a network neutral and fiber-ready city has a very broad appeal to startups and mid-sized companies, especially those in ‘soft industries’ (companies that employ knowledge workers and no heavy manufacturing).”
So, while Dan Carson makes important points about the risk financially to the city if the city engages in this project, the BATF concludes: “Fiber to every house/building, and those owned by the City, is essential for the City’s future economic health.”
The commission noted: “Telemedicine and medical education enhancements are making fiber essential to the personal health of more and more Davis residents, especially as our community’s cohorts of seniors increases.”
Furthermore, “A 21st Century Research University will require remote access to on-campus experiments. Without fiber that will not be achievable.”
That leaves the council in a delicate situation that it seems both the BATF itself recognized and Dan Carson acknowledged. The BATF recommended the city go forward but “engage with someone with background and expertise in order to understand the financial possibilities,” while Dan Carson, leery about the financial risks, also understood the “benefits of improved high-speed broadband for economic development.”
How that gap is bridged will be vital in determining the future of economic development in the city.
One idea not floated could be to have the developers of innovation, along with the university, help mitigate costs and risk to the city. How that would look will be open for discussion.
—David M. Greenwald reporting