Los Angeles will release an RFP early next year seeking a vendor to build a free, fiber-based broadband network for all residents and businesses. But while the concept of citywide, high-speed connectivity is attractive, experts believe the plan isn’t realistic.

Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a technology-focused consumer advocacy group, told Ars Technica that his reaction to the news was wondering when Los Angeles would issue another RFP “for a unicorn supplier,” because he felt what L.A. was asking for in regard to broadband was impossible to achieve.

Los Angeles estimates a vendor would have to invest approximately $3 billion to $5 billion to create the network. While the company would have to provide free service at the slowest connection speeds to everyone, it could generate revenue by charging for premium services. The city may also look to be an anchor tenant on the network. 

Steve Reneker, general manager of the Los Angeles Information Technology Agency, said he’s heard the criticism and is taking it into account as the RFP is being drafted. But the skepticism isn’t going to change much about what the city is looking for.

“I think the ask that we have is unrealistic from the standpoint we do not expect that all the terms and conditions that are being specified in the RFP will be able to be met,” Reneker said, referring to what the city is requesting. “So we’re looking at whatever provider out there that exists that wants to enter this market, or perhaps it’s already here. Whichever satisfies the majority of those [conditions] will be awarded the contract.”

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and a national expert on community broadband issues, is one of the Los Angeles plan’s early skeptics. He’s concerned that Los Angeles’ idea harkens back to Minneapolis’ municipal Wi-Fi build a few years ago. Minneapolis wanted a vendor to come in and operate the network. But it didn’t pan out the way city leaders envisioned.

The Minneapolis Wi-Fi project was completed, but only after several political and technical delays. According to Mitchell, the city now has to set aside $1 million per year over the next five years to keep the network afloat, even though it isn’t highly used.

Mitchell argues that Los Angeles should not depend on a vendor to lay fiber. Instead, it should invest in fiber and conduit itself, installing it during new construction and retrofitting of buildings and communities. This way the groundwork is laid and the city will have more options in the future. He added that Chattanooga, Tenn., and to a smaller extent, Seattle, have taken similar approaches and found success.

“They’re not giving anything up and they’re continuing to expand assets so they will have a voice in their future,” Mitchell said of Chattanooga and Seattle. “I don’t see L.A. doing that at all.”

Reneker confirmed that L.A. has no plans to own any part of the network. The city wants to leverage those broadband providers that have already made major investments in the area, or open up the doors to someone else that is willing to go to the extent it is asking for.

Mitchell said that while he has respect for the work Reneker did as CIO of Riverside, Calif., he disagrees with L.A.’s approach to broadband expansion. He warned that any city that is not immediately figuring out ways of getting fiber or conduit in the ground that it has some control over is doing a disservice to its residents.

In addition, with large telecommunications providers having a history of “cherry picking” areas to serve and the financial resources to fight lower-priced competition, the road to full broadband connectivity could be a long one in Los Angeles.

Reneker acknowledged the perceptions of private providers and some of the historical difficulties. He said those factors will be evaluated as the RFP is drafted.

“If you don’t ask and you don’t go out to RFP, you’re not going to know at the end of the day if someone is going to be willing to bid it or not,” Reneker said. “I think what’s really interesting is the amount of foreign interest in this project. I’m very encouraged about the potential that exists.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.