City’s broadband proposition is expensive, unnecessary
Dallas executives are looking to build their own fiber network using $82 million in taxpayer dollars in a city with no shortage of broadband options. They are moving forward with this plan despite the city having 98% coverage of 5G wireless service.
The city recently consulted on a plan to make Dallas a “smart city,” with wireless Internet access everywhere within its borders.
“It’s so exciting,” council member Jaynie Schultz said during a presentation of the study at a recent Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting, NBC 5 reported. it’s the start in many ways of a huge amount of data and significant change for our city.”
The report says there is an internet divide between the more affluent north sides and the lower-income south sides of the city, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic when students and workers have been forced to stay at their home. This is primarily the reason the city is placing Wi-Fi devices above streetlights in the Red Cloud neighborhood of southeast Dallas.
“For me, it’s a question of equity and access to opportunities for all. Everyone should be able to reach their full potential and have access to resources as people in other parts of the city,” said Councilman Jaime Resendez, who grew up in the area.
A presentation of the city’s strategic plan for broadband and digital equity in August 2021 notes that AT&T and Charter “serve nearly all premises, but gaps remain.”
The Broadband Now website which tracks internet coverage across the United States shows 100% coverage from Charter’s Spectrum and 91.3% coverage from AT&T, although some residences are likely falling through the cracks.
But thanks in large part to the plethora of federal taxpayer dollars floating around, Dallas is thinking about a lot more than connecting a few neighborhoods. Axios notes that Dallas executives have identified construction projects that could benefit from some of that money. The state is expected to receive about $35 billion of the $1.2 trillion in infrastructure bill funding and Dallas will likely use some of that money for a fiber network and to upgrade the existing network of the city to reduce cyber threats. More federal dollars will be available through other programs passed by Congress to help close the digital divide, including equity, broadband access and deployment, and state and local fiscal stimulus funds for coronaviruses.
The positive sentiment among Dallas City Council members regarding the Digital Equity Study and recent presentation indicates a likely RFP for a partner to build an in-between mile fiber optic network and assist in the wireless network deployment.
Much like cities like Detroit, Dallas leaders seem to be using the very small minority of residents who lack broadband access as an excuse to build an expensive, taxpayer-funded citywide network that could end up not be profitable.
The presentation highlights several reasons why the digital divide exists in Dallas that could be solved at much less cost than building a potential $82 million network. This includes the cost of the service/equipment and a need for more education regarding the internet services available.
A December 2020 City of Dallas and Dallas Independent School District survey cited in the report found that students and residents struggle with computer affordability. Many cities have launched programs to subsidize the cost of laptop computers or wireless “hotspot” devices to help close this gap. This survey notes that “almost all respondents have access to the Internet”.
The presentation to the city also noted that low-cost programs from AT&T and Charter (funded by various federal grants) and the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program are grossly underutilized. The report indicates that only 1% of residents receive internet subsidies through Lifeline and only 3% of residents are enrolled in Charter Spectrum’s Internet Assist program. In fact, 58% of residents are not even aware of the Charter Broadband Subsidy. It would appear from these statistics that better educating residents about their grant options could close much of the digital divide in Dallas.
Jeffrey Westling, director of technology and innovation policy for the American Action Forum, told the Taxpayers Protection Alliance that Dallas, the national headquarters of AT&T, is not a city that needs a subsidized competition. He said the best way to help the unserved is not to create a new network from scratch.
“The best way to do that is to give these people vouchers,” he said. “It stimulates more innovation and competition.”
What does not drive innovation and competition is spending $82 million on a wasteful government Internet network that duplicates the existing efforts of private providers. Best is to provide subsidies for people who don’t have access to it or help ISPs expand their existing infrastructure to connect the few Dallas residents on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Johnny Kampis is director of telecommunications policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.