Faster, cheaper internet for everyone is the goal behind Connect Superior, an initiative to create a publicly owned fiber-optic network across the city to connect to the world.
And with the help of American Rescue Plan Act funds, that could happen sooner than city officials were thinking.
Mayor Jim Paine announced plans to begin socking away seed money for the project with his 2022 budget proposal during a virtual listening session Monday, May 3.
More than a dozen people tuned in to ask questions and learn more about the city’s plan to create a broadband utility.
"This is going to be one of the most important resources we invest in, possibly for the next 100 years," Paine said. "I don't think that's an exaggeration. We don't create new utilities very often. It was about a century ago the last time we did. This really does change the future of our city operations."
The city’s Communications and Information Technology Committee initiated creation of the plan before the start of the pandemic.
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As a matter of policy, broadband has been treated as a luxury item, but since the start of the pandemic, it’s been demonstrated that those who don’t have a good connection to the internet faced disadvantages as schools and workplaces went virtual, according to Jeffrey Christensen of Entry Point Networks of Salt Lake City, Utah, which developed the city’s plan for an open-access, fiber-optic network.
"COVID-19 does a wonderful job of reaffirming that policy position, which is broadband infrastructure is essential," Christensen said.
Under Superior’s plan, users of the network would cover the cost to install and maintain the network. Anticipated costs would be less than $45 a month. In addition, users would pay an internet service provider for access to the internet at an expected cost of about $10 per month. Costs would be kept down because multiple internet service providers would compete across the city-managed network.
"The city's not really getting in the internet business," Cox said. "The city's getting in the infrastructure business." He said no one would suggest the city is in the delivery business because FedEx and UPS use the roads the city builds and maintains.
While some questioned past failed efforts to install fiber-optic internet in other communities, one attendee asked how they could participate as a renter.
According to 2019 Census estimates, nearly 45% of people living in Superior rent their homes.
"I've spoken to a number of the major property managers and owners in the city and a lot of them are very excited about this,” Paine said. “They see it as a resource they can provide their tenants that will make them more competitive in the market."
Paine acknowledged it may be a tougher sell for landlords that provide affordable housing in Superior.
"We're going to have to find ways to incentivize landlords to do that," Paine said.
Some attending the virtually listening session expressed enthusiasm for the plan and offered to help get the word out because building the network is going to require user participation to finance the network.
Additional listening sessions are being planned, Cox said.
Paine said from his perspective, the next steps are getting guidance from the U.S. Treasury on how the city can spend its $17.7 million allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act. He said he would like to see most of that go into broadband to ensure it’s available to everyone.
"We've already seen how much the internet impacts our life," Paine said. "I think that if we look at the role the internet has played in the last 30 years, the one thing that we know about it, is that we have no clue just how impactful it's going to be even 10 years from now."