Last year, city officials signed a 30-year, no-cost contract with SiFi Networks to design, build and maintain a high-speed fiber-optic network within city limits.
(TNS) – The Spa City will wire itself for the future.
Over the summer city officials signed a long-term contract with SiFi Networks to design, install and maintain a fiber optic network, making it the first municipality in the state and one of only a handful in the nation to embrace the technology to provide residents and businesses with lightning-fast Internet.
The 30-year agreement, explained Commissioner of Finance Michele Madigan will come at no cost to the city while also lowering the cost of being connected because multiple providers can hop on the network, giving consumers a choice.
"SiFi will interface with the providers," Madigan said. "The more providers they have, the more competition it opens up."
Madigan said the deal, which will send data 50 times faster than the average household now experiences, will also ensure that the city's most underserved neighborhoods will be connected.
"I understand how important it is for people to have access, to have Internet services regardless of economic disparity," Madigan said. "I started the Smart City Commission and this is one of the main projects to come out of it."
Madigan points to cities like Chattanooga, Tenn., which saw an economic boom after it was wired with fiber. That city, according to the Washington Post, used its electric utility lines rather than contracting with a company like SiFi or Google, which has wired several cities like Atlanta and San Francisco.
"Look at Chattanooga 20 years ago and where it is today," she said. "They are on the forefront of innovation. It was a huge boon for them."
But the agreement with SiFi, based in Morristown, N.J. doesn't come without concerns, said Michael Santorelli, the director of the Advanced Communication Law and Policy Institute at New York Law School. His biggest one is that SiFi has yet to complete a city-wide project anywhere.
"As part of my ongoing research, I tracked SiFi's efforts," said Santorelli who follows broadband projects throughout the nation. "I have identified a dozen cities that SiFi tried to work with over the last six years. To my knowledge there hasn't been a successful result of SiFi's effort on the scale of Saratoga. Saratoga would be the first."
Santorelli said there were cities that agreed to partner with SiFi, but then the deals fell apart because he said "they took a harder look at numbers."
Madigan said there is no financial risk because the only thing the city is paying for is a yet-to-be hired city engineer who will be the point person in the project. Half of that cost, $45,000, will be paid for by SiFi. However, if SiFi does not complete the fiber network by 2022 — which will be embedded in the city's streets' right-of-way — then the city will have the option to buy the network at cost with a 10 percent markup or just allow SiFi to light up the part of the network it has completed.
"We only buy it if we want to," said Madigan of the choice that would be decided by the City Council. "We don't have to."
SiFi's President Scott Bradshaw, who is working with the city on the project, did not return a Times Union phone call on Monday. Neither did city officials in Salem, Mass. which also announced plans to work with SiFi. The Mayor's office at East Hartford, Conn., did respond to a Times Union query regarding plans to contract with SiFi, but only to say that it's too early to make any comment.
Last August, Saratoga Springs City Council voted unanimously to sign the SiFi contract. At the time, the Commissioner of Public Safety Peter Martin said that 30-year contract is a long time and noted that he had some concern that SiFi has the option to extend it for another 30.
Santorelli agreed, adding the duration also makes the SiFi contract with Saratoga Springs "unique," because "long-term technology agreements become outdated pretty quickly."
Madigan said that she doesn't know what will be happening in the future, but feels certain "they will be using a fiber infrastructure because nothing is faster than fiber."
Martin was also concerned that SiFi would have exclusive rights to the sewer lines, barring other Internet, video or data deliveries from using the sewers during the duration of the contract. But Madigan assured, that for the most part, SiFi will not be using the sewers. They will only tap into the sewers if there is no other way to access a particular street using the ground right-of-way.
Commissioner of Public Works Anthony "Skip" Scirocco said in August at the City Council meeting that he discussed this with SiFi and does not see a problem with that clause.
Installing fiber throughout the city, beginning in summer of 2020, will not be that disruptive, Madigan said. Using a technique called micro trenching, a vehicle will cut a hole about 3/4 of an inch wide and 10 to 12 inches deep. Fibers will be dropped down inside. Then another vehicle, following, closes up the hole. The city will not dig up Broadway and most of the fiber will be dropped on streets connecting to Broadway, not Broadway itself.
Madigan said Internet is just the beginning of what fiber optics can do. She foresees the city using it to track water main breaks, coordinate traffic and streetlights, monitor manholes as well as alert residents to public safety issues and myriad other tasks to improve life in the city.
"The city is fully cognizant of what we are doing," Madigan said."I'm not seeing the risks. I would say people are generally and genuinely excited about the prospect of it."
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