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Moore column: Superior's broadband is a nonstarter, and it could cost you

I encourage you to contact your local officials today. Don’t forget that the next vote on this large appropriation is March 15!

Internet cable, RJ-45 plug on laptop keyboard.
Internet cable, RJ-45 plug on laptop keyboard. High speed fiber optic internet concept.
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Last month, Superior’s City Council approved a plan that would provide $5 million for “Connect Superior,” the city’s broadband initiative funded by the city’s $17 million state and local federal recovery funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). However, there are still upcoming city council votes and opportunities that will allow your voices to be heard on this important issue, including one this coming Tuesday, March 15.

Councilors amended the budget to fund child care and set money aside for other ideas.

Local leaders should be listening to each of you, as residents of Superior. It is unfair and unreasonable to expect all taxpaying residents of Superior to pay for something that — according to the federal government — more than 99% of Superior residents already have access to right now. There’s a better way to expand access to this important service. Private companies invested billions of dollars in Wisconsin and continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars each year to extend, upgrade, and service our digital networks. In fact, they’ve already ensured that more than 99% of Superior residents have access to gigabit high-speed internet that far exceeds the FCC’s standard of 25/3 megabits per second.

Earmarking such a significant amount of funding to broadband infrastructure — especially where it already exists — hampers Superior’s ability to invest in other priorities that could benefit from ARPA funds, such as mental health services and helping address homelessness. In fact, with nearly 30% of the city's ARPA funds set aside for broadband, the Superior Telegram reported that only 1% of ARPA funds are designated for mental health services and just 3% are devoted to addressing homelessness leading city council member Brent Fennessey to say, “I think our priorities are atypical of a city that wants to come out stronger through this pandemic … I think our priorities are misaligned.”

Superior residents should ask themselves why the city is forcing its taxpayers to fund an unnecessary broadband plan that could pose a serious financial risk to this community. In a recent piece, Brett Healy of the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy wrote, “The mayor of Superior… [is] pushing the city council to build a government-owned broadband network paid for by taxpayers, instead of the private sector. In the vast majority of communities across the state and the country, broadband infrastructure and networks are paid for by a private business(es) looking to provide a service to paying customers who want that service and are willing to pay for that service with their own money.”

Healy continued, “Superior taxpayers need to take note because this government-owned project is likely to fail and when it does, local politicians will force you to pay for their quixotic attempt to prove to themselves just how important they are.”

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This is an important part of this discussion. This is not free money without risk for Superior’s taxpayers. As noted by city council member Tylor Elm during an August 17 meeting on the city’s Broadband Master Plan, “The City of Superior is not taking the risk, the people who sign up for this service are.”

Last summer, I expressed my concern that the city of Superior is considering an attempt to boost broadband access by creating a so-called “government-owned network.” It is concerning not only because it is a large allocation of Superior’s ARPA funds, but because history tells us this project could fail, leaving this community with nothing to show for the multi-million dollar investment. As I laid out in my previous column, the city of Superior is not the first to consider government-owned networks, and there is much evidence from previous attempts that demonstrate why this nonstarter is doomed. For example, our capital city of Madison experienced backlash from implementing a government-owned network in 2015, costing the city and its taxpayers nearly $900,000. Superior residents face a similar fate if their city’s broadband plan moves forward.

Nobody knows what is in store for the rest of 2022. In this time of economic uncertainty, when inflation is rising and the dollar is weakening, spending millions of Superior taxpayers’ money on a plan that is unnecessary and unlikely to succeed not only doesn’t make sense, but is irresponsible. There is time to stop this boondoggle if enough taxpayers speak up and express their concerns to Superior’s mayor and city council. If you, like me, are concerned about the cost of this wasteful project to you and your family, I encourage you to contact your local officials today. Don’t forget that the next vote on this large appropriation is March 15!

Tom Moore is the executive director of the Wisconsin Cable Communications Association.

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