Albany, N.Y., Council Calls for Second Look Into City-Owned Internet

An initial study into municipal Internet options didn’t answer all of the questions around what it would cost for the city to own and operate the network.

by Amanda Fries, Times Union / August 31, 2018
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(TNS) —  ALBANY, N.Y. — A study examining wireless options for municipal Internet in Albany last year didn’t delve deep enough into it being city-owned, so one council member is calling for another study.

Albany Common Councilman Owusu Anane said the study lacked a focus on a system that would be city-owned and city-run, and thus wants to create a commission to study that option specifically.

“Internet access is an essential part of our daily lives, which impacts how we work and conduct the everyday business of our lives,” Anane said in a news release. “A citizen-owned Internet service would mean faster speeds, expanded free or affordable service, provide economic benefits and improve the lives of the people of Albany.”

While city last year released a feasibility study on municipal Internet, it focused on options that would include private partnerships.

Completed by Millennium Strategies, it outlined three viable options, ranging from running fiber to homes to installing wireless access points. Estimated costs for fiber to homes range between $15.9 million and $44.4 million depending on if existing distribution points are used. Meanwhile, Wi-Fi service is estimated to cost $9.2 million.

City staff have said to move forward with municipal Internet, a policy would have to be created. The plan is to purchase its light poles from National Grid, which would allow Albany to use the poles as locations for hot spots. The city could then partner with one or more 5G companies that would provide and maintain the service.

Mayor Kathy Sheehan’s chief of staff Brian Shea said they’ve been negotiating with National Grid for some time to obtain the lights and hope to finalize things soon.

Anane said private companies are focused on profits, not the citizens, and having a municipally owned service would ensure that the public’s interest is at the forefront.

Made up of 10 members – the council and Mayor Kathy Sheehan appointing five each – the commission proposed by Anane would research “the feasibility, logistics, and financing of creating a municipally-run, citizen-owned high-speed Internet service," according to the legislation.

Tasks would include a costs and benefits analysis, examining how other localities have implemented the service, coming up with an ideal model and considering possible public partnerships with nonprofits, libraries, or other municipalities, the legislation outlines. Cohoes also is considering options for municipal Internet.

Chattanooga, Tenn., often cited as a model for municipal Internet, implemented a fiber optic network with the help of a $111 million grant from the Department of Energy. The Internet services were part of a $330 million project by the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, a municipally-owned utility, that created a smart grid in the city.

Anane recognized it could be an expensive venture, but just like the city’s water infrastructure, he said Internet access is for the “greater good of the city.”

Internet access is no longer seen as a luxury, but something akin to water or electricity, and in Albany nearly 29 percent of households are without Internet access, according to U.S. Census data.

Albany does offer wireless Internet service, called FreeNet, in some areas, but the technology is limited and can’t be built out. The service was funded through a state broadband initiative that has since run dry.

Continued talk surrounding municipal Internet services comes as New York state and Charter Communications discuss options that would allow charter to maintain ownership of Spectrum cable TV and Internet in the state.

Previously, the company was ordered to sell off its Spectrum network and leave New York when it didn’t live up to its end of the deal during the merger of Charter and Time Warner Cable. The merger was approved under the condition Charter extend its cable network to 145,000 addresses in the state where high-speed Internet access is unavailable.

©2018 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.