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Lexington, Ky., Set to Become a Gigabit City

Officials in Lexington, Ky. are finalizing plans with Internet and cable provider MetroNet to wire the city with high-speed fiber.

As it moves to bring an additional cable TV provider to Lexington, Ky., along with some really rapid Internet speeds, this college town is on its way to becoming a “gigabit city.”

Lexington is on course to partner with MetroNet, an Indiana-based cable and Internet provider, to wire the city with a fiber network capable of up to 1,000 megabits per second. Most Internet providers in Lexington provide service at 25 to 100 megabits per second.

The project, reported to cost $70 million or more, would be paid for by MetroNet, which would have the opportunity to pick up thousands of new subscribers in this city of some 318,000 residents. Mayor Jim Gray said that could make Lexington the largest city in the nation with a comprehensive gigabit fiber network.

“It took us three years to figure this out, but at the end of the day we reached this arrangement with MetroNet to build a fiber-optic network here,” said Scott Shapiro, chief innovation officer for Lexington.

MetroNet, should it be selected, would use the city’s right-of-way and enter into a 10-year franchise agreement with the city. The initial buildout would cover about 70 percent of Lexington, with the remaining 30 percent installed as the company reaches subscriber benchmarks, said Shapiro. It may take MetroNet up to four years to wire the entire city, MetroNet and city officials told the Lexington Herald-Leader. It’s not yet clear what sort of rates MetroNet plans to charge for its service.

The march toward Lexington becoming a “gigabit city” was a natural one, Gray said.

“When we launched the project in 2014, we had the resources, and we had the need,” said Gray. “A city like Lexington, we were perfectly poised to chase the project,” he added. “Now, the challenge being … the execution of these big projects is nothing short of a miracle. Because it really takes so much consensus building.”

Throughout the last several years, the mayor’s office has been plagued by complaints about Lexington’s Internet and cable TV providers, whose performance Gray described as “mediocre.” That, coupled with a desire by the city to become more attractive to tech-related and other businesses, pointed the city in the direction of gigabit connectivity. 

“When the city’s pitching to any business today, whether it’s a back-office operation, whether it’s a technology enterprise, or a professional enterprise, or advanced manufacturing, or all of the above, it’s at the top of the criteria list,” Gray said.

Public-private partnerships like this one are on the rise, say others from city-led innovation departments.

“We increase city fiber by allowing a company, Unite Private Networks, to install their fiber at an advantageous rate in exchange for 22 strands of fiber for each 122 they install,” explained Bob Bennett, chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Mo., who added that private firms will often find “common ground” with cities, even in cases that require a large capital outlay like the one in Lexington.

“What they wanted was a city that wanted them,” said Shapiro of the deal with MetroNet, which is set to be finalized in early December.

MetroNet officials did not immediately return a request to comment on the Lexington project. 

“They knew that they had the experience, the capacity and the funding to expand somewhere,” said Shapiro. “So they were really looking for a city that wanted them, a city that is dense — density helps the economics work.”

A high-speed Internet infrastructure is becoming a crucial public utility as cities position themselves for being the sorts of places people and businesses want to locate and move to, say officials.

“There are (a) couple hundred, at least, maybe more, cities who are all trying to do exactly this,” said Shapiro. “They are all trying to figure out how to build a fiber network in their city, because they understand that it makes them more competitive.”

Gray cast the development of a fiber network in the context of some of the great technological advances in the last 300 years.

“It’s the rivers of the 18th century, the railroads of the 19th century, and the interstate highways of the 20th,” said Gray. “So obviously, this is a very big deal.” 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.