With an implementation price tag of more than $170 million, Madison’s latest initiative to bridge the city’s digital divide is seen as financially unfeasible.
The city-wide Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) plan was part of an ongoing effort by the city to bridge its digital divide, referring to significant gaps in broadband access, affordability and digital skill, according to the Fiber-to-the-Premises Implementation Plan.
Madison Chief Information Officer Sara Edgerton, who leads all IT development for Madison, said this effort would be theoretically beneficial.
“If we don’t have equitable coverage through the city, we are creating digital divide,” Edgerton said.
The FTTP was intended to provide broadband connectivity to every resident and business in Madison, with priority on providing access to historically underserved populations. Low broadband adoption and subscription rates in Madison correlate with low-income areas in the city, according to the plan.
14,000 homes in Dane County don’t have access to the internet as of 2017, according to DANEnet, a local technology education nonprofit. This divide becomes significant as many basic services are migrating online, including government information and social services, as well as school homework assignments Ald. Keith Furman, District 19, said.
“You’re at a huge disadvantage from everything,” Furman said. “Things we take for granted, like being able to pay your bill online, that’s a pretty big deal. And if you have to drive somewhere to drop off the check to pay your bill, that’s hard.”
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Despite the importance of internet accessibility, the city of Madison will not move forward with the FTTP plan. The Digital Technology Committee found the implementation plan, which was prepared in consultation with CTC Technology & Energy in September, to be too expensive at $170 million, Furman said.
The feasibility report for the FTTP was first commissioned in 2015 under former President Barack Obama’s administration, which focused more on providing broadband grants to urban areas, Edgerton said. Now, under President Donald Trump’s administration, the Federal Communications Commission has shifted its focus to rural areas and affected the city’s previous expectations of potential federal support.
In October, Furman and City Council President Samba Baldeh sponsored a resolution for the city to follow the committee’s recommendation to explore smaller, more targeted approaches rather than the full FTTP plan.
“It ultimately comes down to cost — simple as that,” Furman said.
This was not the city’s first effort to provide low-income residents with broadband access. In 2015, the city partnered with ResTech, a local internet service provider, in a two-year pilot program to provide broadband internet services to residents in the Allied Drive, Brentwood, Darbo-Worthington and Kennedy Heights neighborhoods.
The contract was terminated in January 2018, when the program had 19 active customers, according to the report. ResTech faced difficulty connecting to individual units within apartment buildings because some landlords were not responsive to communications, and other landlords had granted exclusive access to other internet service providers, Furman said.
“There are a lot of barriers to the city doing this, not just financial,” Furman said.
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According to Furman, Factors beyond availability and affordability are affecting the digital divide. With this in mind, the council is pursuing other efforts, like continuing to provide funding to DANEnet. DANEnet provides digital literacy workshops, distributes computers to low-income households and holds clinics to fix computers throughout the city, Furman said.
Community centers and libraries are other avenues the city has taken to increase internet access, Edgerton said. The Central Library in downtown Madison provides open access WiFi, wired computers, laptops to check out and iPads through the library. These resources are heavily used by groups that are “disenfranchised, disconnected from internet access at home,” Kimberly Williams, a library assistant at the Central Library, said.
Still, these computers are not being updated as often as they should. Williams said the library needs new laptops, but does not have the budget.
The city council is also proposing a study in 2019 to examine the possibility of providing broadband services to the city’s public housing sites. While the city is currently unable to provide full city-wide broadband access, Furman hopes to use public housing as a test case for finding companies to partner with in moving towards city-wide access.
“It’s very difficult these days to operate without the internet,” Furman said. “I personally believe internet should be a utility — like running water, like electricity.”