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Lancaster, Pa., Disconnects Free Broadband for Last Customers

When the city cut off LanCity Connect's residential service, it ended what had become, dating back to September 2021, a free Internet service for its 136 remaining customers.

(TNS) — Kim McGeehan and some of her neighbors in the 100 block of North Mary Street were among the first in Lancaster city to become customers of LanCity Connect, the municipal broadband service that began signups in spring 2017 and was shut off at the end of April.

McGeehan said she was enthusiastic about the city's effort to provide high-speed internet service to residents. She said it was easy to set up and offered reliable, low-cost service, fulfilling the original intent of the city effort that was begun in 2015. For most of the last 2 1/2 years, LanCity Connect's residential service also included something that wasn't intended: no cost.

"I liked the service, and heaven knows it wasn't costing us anything. I feel this guilty about it," McGeehan said, holding her thumb and forefinger close together. "But not extremely guilty."

After she stopped getting billed for the roughly $40 a month internet-only service, McGeehan said she sent an email every month to an address for LanCity Connect noting that withdrawals weren't being made for her automatic payments. She also began to put aside money every month in case there was a bill for all past service. Eventually, she stopped sending the emails and put money being reserved for the bills into a savings account.

"We knew we owed them money — but apparently not," said McGeehan, who reported accumulating several thousand dollars by not having to pay for internet service for so long.

When the city cut off LanCity Connect's residential service, it ended what had become, since September 2021, a free service for its 136 remaining customers. Billing had ended soon after the city took over the system in May 2021 from MAW Communications, the Reading-based firm that was initially tasked with building it.

The fact that customers hadn't been billed for nearly 2 1/2 years is one illustration of the legal and bureaucratic problems that have beset the city's efforts to build a municipal broadband system that would reach every residence. The completion of the system is now being undertaken by Virginia-based internet, telephone and cable TV provider Shentel, which will soon begin offering its GloFiber service to city residents. It already offers the service to residents in East Hempfield, East Lampeter, West Lampeter, Lancaster, Manor and Manheim townships, as well as East Petersburg, Millersville and Mountville boroughs.

A letter announcing the April 30 end of LanCity Connect was mailed in February to its remaining customers.

"With the Shentel agreement now in place, the city will be discontinuing LanCity Connect," read the letter from Mayor Danene Sorace. "It is no small feat creating a municipal broadband option and this process has certainly been bumpy. We appreciate the opportunity to provide LanCity Connect services and I look forward to expanding municipal broadband citywide. Thank you."

Residential hookups for Shentel's GloFiber are slated to begin in southeast Lancaster city early next year, with the service made available at every city address by late 2026, according to Shentel and city officials.

Problematic public-private partnership

After beginning to sign up customers in early 2017, MAW's effort was halted after PPL sued MAW for not getting proper permission to make attachments to PPL's utility poles. That dispute left the broadband service at a standstill, with no new residential customers added since 2017.

After joining a PPL lawsuit against MAW, the city eventually settled with MAW and became the owner in May 2021 of the system which included 16 miles of fiber optic cable. The city continued to support the system but did not bill customers for the internet due to what were previously described as a "series of legal and economic decisions" that included not having access to MAW's billing system and not having the wherewithal to create a new one.

In all, the city has spent around $6 million on the municipal broadband system, officials said. Those costs included payments to MAW, payments to consultants to study options for the system and technical support to keep the system running. None of those costs are being recouped through the new partnership with Shentel, although the city has reserved the right to connect some city services — including traffic lights and water meters — for free throughout Shentel's entire network.

"We have (already) spent this money," Sorace told LNP — LancasterOnline after an April 2023 Lancaster City Council meeting where the agreement with Shentel was approved. "So how do we leverage this investment? How do we do this moving forward so it still accomplishes our goal and reduces the risk going forward and the financial strain on the city, given all that we know about the city's financial status?"

By not collecting revenue from customers who continued to use the service, the city also lost out on potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Assuming a $50 a month rate for all 136 customers, that amounts to nearly $210,800 in lost revenue. Since there were around 160 customers when the city took over the service in May 2021, and some of those customers were paying $100 or more a month, the lost revenue could be much higher.

Scott Murphy, who lives in the 100 block of North Mary Street in Lancaster city, had been paying $125 a month for LanCity Connect when he stopped getting electronic bills. Murphy, who works from home as an IT applications specialist, said the service remained mostly reliable and that a service technician hired by the city actually did answer the phone when he called to report problems.

Murphy said he got worried, though, when he realized it was the same one person answering every call. And once, when he was unable to reach anyone about an outage, he gave his neighbor a case of beer in exchange for being able to log on to his Comcast WiFi signal through the wall. A service problem in March prompted him to sign up for his own Comcast account and resume paying for his internet service.

"How upset can you get when a free service goes away?" Murphy asked. "Realistically, you have to say, 'I'm getting what I'm paying for.'"

Worth the effort?

In response to a series of emailed questions about LanCity Connect, city spokesperson Amber Strazzo Righter provided details about the number of customers, the costs to maintain the system and a timeline for the rollout of GloFiber. Unanswered was a question about exactly why the LanCity Connect customers couldn't be billed and why the service was cut off in April, well before GloFiber will be available.

Until recently, the landing page message at notified customers that nothing would change.

"While a more comprehensive plan is being developed for the future of the city-owned fiber optic system, we can assure you that we plan to continue the same level of high-speed internet service current customers enjoy from LanCity Connect at the same monthly cost for their level of service," the message read.

In early June, soon after an inquiry from LNP — LancasterOnline about the status of LanCity Connect, the website home page was updated. It now announces the ending of LanCity Connect on April 30 and offers information about GloFiber.

Kevin Ressler, who lives in southeast Lancaster city and had been a LanCity Connect customer, said cutting off the service has left some of his neighbors without the high-speed internet service they had come to rely on.

"Unfortunately, the lack of infrastructure options means that residents in my neighborhood are at a professional competitive disadvantage for good-paying jobs that require authentically high-speed internet connections," Ressler said.

Ressler ran against Sorace in the May 2017 Democratic primary and was the executive director of the United Way of Lancaster County until June 2023, when he left to become CEO of nonprofit The Alliance for Health Equity in Coatesville, Chester County.

Since the end of LanCity Connect, Ressler said he has become a customer of Comcast. Despite the problems with the city's municipal broadband effort, he credits officials with trying to give high-speed internet access to its residents.

Art Morris, a Lancaster city resident who was the city's mayor from 1980 to 1990, was more critical.

"Hearing that the city just notified customers that they were disconnecting their LanCity Connect service was, for me, the final exclamation point to this project, which has been an epic financial failure with no public accountability or, even, an apology," said Morris, who recently contacted Lancaster Watchdog seeking an update on LanCity Connect.

"Everyone makes mistakes, but not to this level. What has occurred here, in my opinion, is an inability for the city to right the ship after it got off track. I believe they continued to plod ahead, increasing the cost to taxpayers without being fully transparent," Morris said.

© 2024 LNP (Lancaster, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.