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City-Run Utility to Provide Internet Service in Superior, Wis.

The Superior City Council has voted to create a new broadband utility. Under the plan, the city would provide wholesale access to Internet service providers and the ISPs would provide service to users.

(TNS) — The Superior City Council created a new broadband utility with a 7-3 vote Tuesday, Nov. 7, after nearly two hours of discussion.

Councilors Tylor Elm, Ruth Ludwig, Mike Herrick, Lindsey Graskey, Nicholas Ledin, Jenny Van Sickle and Garner Moffat voted in favor of the ordinance that supports plans to connect a fiber optic network to every home and business in the city.

Councilors Brent Fennessey, Mark Johnson and Jack Sweeney, who expressed concerns about bonding and costs of the project, voted against it.

"It's not often a generation witnesses the creation of a new utility," said Mitch Shook, CEO of AdvancedStream, one of the Internet service providers that signed a memorandum of understanding to utilize the city's network. "When I think about it, I would guess the electrification era was probably the last time it occurred."

Under the city's business model, the city would provide wholesale access to Internet service providers, and the ISPs would provide Internet service to users.

The creation of the utility allows the city to move ahead with plans to design and build the first phase of the project. The city has allocated about $7 million for development of the feasibility study and construction to 821 homes in the neighborhood east of Tower Avenue between Belknap and North 21st streets.

"I really endorse the proposal to develop the utility for Internet access in Superior," said Anne Holy of Kilner Bay Drive. "Where we live ... there's several roads over there that are beyond the reach of Spectrum, so we have Brightspeed available to us to provide access."

Holy said the slow speeds offer Internet that is "awful at best." She said she had better service 15 miles outside of Grand Marais after Cook County brought in fiber optic access.

"Please proceed with the ConnectSuperior project, and please include us in the next phase," Holy said.

Todd Campbell said he built his home 33 years ago on Kilner Bay Drive. He said he's never had access there to cable TV or high-speed Internet, or other city utilities. He said he currently uses CenturyLink DSL and has similar issues with speed. While he has reached speeds of 20 megabits per second, he said it's not very consistent.

"I do support the broadband effort in Superior," Campbell said. "I hope we're one of the first neighborhoods, should you make this step, because we don't have any options."

However, not everyone was in favor of the estimated $50 million to $62 million project that will be built out in phases over a period of five or more years.

"I'm all for broadband, don't get me wrong," said John Kolstad of South Superior. "I'm all for it, just not on the backs of taxpayers."

The plan to build the network calls for users to pay for the construction and maintenance of the network.

However, Kolstad said creating the utility will create a burden for taxpayers.

"I would move that you put this to a referendum," Kolstad said.

Al Kurtz of Wyoming Avenue also encouraged the council to do a referendum to determine if the project is meant to be.

"I'm here today to semi-oppose this," Kurtz said. "Spectrum has a 65% market share. ... if this was such an easy thing to do, why isn't anyone doing it?"

Moffat said his district has already had a referendum on the issue of sorts. As one of four candidates running for the 3rd District last spring, he said he ran on the issue and won election in a race that wasn't even close.

"I'm strongly supporting this," Moffat said. "It's pro-family; it's pro-education. It's pro-business."

Van Sickle said if people want to stick with incumbent Internet providers, that's fine, but the fiber network gives consumers a choice.

"Anyone who chooses to stay with Spectrum, that is your choice," Van Sickle said. "But this network finally gives you the opportunity to fire them. And that is an important aspect. Not only can you sign up with a new provider — you can leave."

Randy Skowland of Hill Avenue has long opposed the project.

"We are trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist," Skowlund said. "I don't think we need this. We certainly don't need it for $62 million."

Elm said the current state of Internet connectivity is far from ideal because providers are not building the fiber infrastructure at a pace that meets the demands of the digital age. He likened the current infrastructure to crumbling, unmaintained highways.

" Superior residents are already spending $10 million each year on Internet connectivity," Elm said. He said the question is whether it's better to spend that money investing in Superior or sending the money outside the region and pay exorbitant prices for subpar services.

"Building out the infrastructure is a municipality's — I believe — responsibility to its citizens," said Pat Malley, president of Duluthian Networks, the other ISP that has agreed to provide service over Superior's fiber network. "It is building out the infrastructure that has been put in the hands of the incumbents for so long. Federal money has been spent there. Local money has been spent there and misspent there in many ways."

After the council voted to create the utility, Skowlund said it is the biggest fiscal problem the City Council has ever created.

However, creating the utility wasn't the only decision councilors made Tuesday. The council also voted to award Magellan Advisors the contract to do a detailed design for the first phase of construction for $238,000.

©2023 the Superior Telegram, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.