MacIver News Service | Nov. 9, 2017
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – The Declaration of Independence eloquently lays out the truths that we Americans hold to be self-evident.
We, all of us, are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights.
Among these, of course, are:
The Pursuit of Happiness;
And Taxpayer-Subsidized Internet.
While there is nothing in the Declaration or the U.S. Constitution about the pursuit of taxpayer-funded access to Facebook and kitty videos on YouTube, the city of Madison’s unchecked liberal common council members believe there ought to be.
The consensus of the council seems to be that access to the Internet is a “basic right,” that it should be a utility.
With that tenet in mind, the Madison boondoggle du jour, a pilot program to bring subsidized broadband to four low-income neighborhoods, is two-plus years in the making, at a cost of a half million dollars to the liberal city’s overburdened taxpayers. And it could get a whole lot more expensive should the city pursue a “ubiquitous” fiber network.
What we have learned from Madison’s Affordable Broadband Act (SoglinCare) thus far, what city leaders should have known going in is this:
- Low-income multi-tenant properties already are served by broadband providers with exclusive agreements.
- That reality has cost the pilot program one of the four low-income neighborhoods the initiative had sought to serve.
- The private sector, without any help from Big Brother, is expanding its reach and service in Madison’s low-income markets.
- The initiative has hit a number of snags and delays, with 17 subscribers to date using the taxpayer-subsidized service.
- Affordable, accessible broadband may be a desire, but it’s surely not a right. Even the president of the private telecommunications provider leading the pilot program will tell you that.
In 2013, the city created the “Digital Technology Committee,” an ad hoc panel advising Mayor Paul Soglin and the council on the city’s use of digital technology. The committee focused on the so-called “Digital Divide,” and the accompanying issues of broadband access and affordability.
Two years later, the city hired CTC Technology and Energy to conduct a Fiber to the Premises feasibility analysis. Its aim: to determine whether Madison should get into the business of a “citywide ultra high-speed fiber based broadband network, either directly or through public-private partnership.”
A survey from that study found that Madison residents are highly connected – about 95 percent of respondents had some form of Internet connection, with 89 percent reporting home Internet service. But Mad Town liberals want to reach out to the underserved, low-income residents who may not have access to affordable Internet service – at taxpayers’ expense, of course.
Looking to test the waters in its pursuit to fill the “digital divide,” the city in 2015 pushed its Connecting Madison initiative. The pilot program was to involve four city housing projects, deliver 10 megabits per second speed for $9.99 per month, provide free computers, and offer “digital literacy classes.”
The government-commissioned project has faced multiple delays.
Bryan Schenker, president of Restech Services, the Madison private telecom provider tapped to lead the pilot, said the biggest challenge has been trying to bring broadband to apartment complexes that already have service agreements with other providers, particularly exclusive agreements. He called it a “competitive barrier,” but those providers simply got there first.
Schenker said the fact of those fixed positions was “something people didn’t generally understand” going into the test. The “people” in this case would be common council members and bureaucrats. Speaking of which, city Information Technology officials did not return MacIver News Service’s calls seeking comment.
Schenker said Restech has completed laying fiber where it has received permission, but the government-led fix to the digital divide continues to face a pretty big gap.
Restech was commissioned to provide service to four low-income, multi-tenant-heavy neighborhoods – Allied Drive, Brentwood, Darbo/Worthington, and Kennedy Heights. The broadband provider had to give up on the latter because it ran into a wall of exclusive agreements.
Without Kennedy Heights, the pilot program to date has made broadband service available to 358 units, out of 979 possible units, according to Schenker. As of Tuesday, Restech had signed up 17 customers.
Suffice to say, the subsidized initiative has a long way to go.
Schenker said his company would like to complete setup by the end of the year. Then the second phase of measuring interest and service over the two-year pilot period gets underway.
Other People’s Money
It’s a costly proposition, not that tax-and-spend Madison liberals have ever been too concerned about price. In September 2015, Restech was selected by an ad hoc committee to be the broadband provider for the pilot program, with a bid that came in at $512,000 – more than double the proposal by competitor Red Rover.
The city wanted fiber, not wireless, so Restech won out.
Some basic economic principles are lost on the Internet-for-all crowd. They’re not lost on Restech.
“One of the challenges we run into as an industry is how to figure out how to pay for and service low-income residents,” Schenker said. “If it was just a matter of economic interest why would Restech or any provider invest in low-income properties?” It’s a return-on-investment question. And that’s why such markets are underserved.
But is it the taxpayers’ obligation to subsidize Internet service, particularly in a city where free wifi is pouring out of every corner of the community and Internet access is as near as the local library or school?
Internet service providers are stepping up to close the divide, without taxpayer money. Last month, Charter Communications rolled out Spectrum Internet Assist, a low-cost, high-speed broadband service. Madison-area lawmakers and nonprofit leaders joined in the announcement, celebrating the private sector’s campaign to “remove barriers” to broadband access. Charter and other providers have much of the infrastructure already in place.
Now the city of Madison is investigating the costs of making real the liberal declaration that all Madisonians have a “right” to affordable broadband.
The feasibility study found that a “Ubiquitous” citywide fiber network would cost Madison taxpayers more than $140 million. In August, the city released a request for proposal looking for a “Partnership for Deployment of a Fiber to the Premise Network.”
By our count, Madison has spent at least $841,000 on its vision of life, liberty and the pursuit of broadband. That money could have been used on myriad urgent needs facing the community. More tax increases are already in the offing. How much more will property taxpayers have to fork over to fund a wasteful citywide broadband project? All in the name of a service that is important in the Digital Age, but certainly not a right.
Schenker, whose company is benefiting from this liberal mantra, acknowledges there is no “inherent right to get broadband,” even if it may be a community desire.
“This is a political question debated a lot. A different community may have a different answer,” he said. “Is this a right? There’s no law saying that.”
Listen to MacIver’s Matt Kittle discuss Madison’s broadband quest on News/Talk 1310 WIBA: