Pushback for high-speed fiber project in Kentucky highlights political battle over broadband

A proposed public-private partnership to install a high-speed fiber network in Louisville, KY is under fire as a high-profile lobbyist group pushes to stop the project.

Image: iStock/kummeleon

Installing high-speed broadband is a key component of Louisville's plan to become a smarter city, but a national group is undertaking an intense lobbying effort to prevent it from happening in the Kentucky city.

If the plan is approved as part of the proposed city budget, which goes up for vote by the Louisville City Council on June 22, the city would spend $5.4 million to add 97 miles of fiber optic cable as part of a fiber backbone in Jefferson County, which is the Kentucky county where Louisville is located. Currently, there are 21.3 miles of fiber optic cable owned by the city within a business district in downtown Louisville.

The budget would allow for an additional 97 miles of high-speed fiber to be installed. It would include servicing seven miles stretching from downtown Louisville to the Portland neighborhood, an underserved community in west Louisville. That 7-mile stretch of cabling would cost about $2.4 million. An additional $3 million would be spent to partner with Kentucky Wired on its project to install 90 miles of fiber optic cable throughout the county. This is a savings over the $12 million cost that the city would incur if it were to install the 90 miles of high-speed broadband cable separately from the Kentucky Wired project, said Grace Simrall, chief of civic innovation for Louisville Metro Government.

SEE: Google Fiber 2.0 targets the city where it will stage its comeback, as AT&T Fiber prepares to go nuclear (TechRepublic)

However, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) lobbyist group has begun a social media campaign to block the project in Louisville.

David Williams, president of the Washington D.C.-based TPA, which is part of the political donor network run by industrialists Charles and David Koch, said: "We don't consider a core government function to be providing broadband."

Additionally, Williams noted that the group would like the project to move forward, but without the use of taxpayer funds. "We're concerned that what is the next technology that is going to come around. It's a very expensive undertaking by Kentucky," he said.

The lobbyist group has embarked upon a social media campaign on Twitter and Facebook with promoted posts and tweets aimed at stopping the project, and Williams said the next step might possibly be a more traditional lobbying campaign before the budget goes up for vote on June 22.

This is part of an ongoing battle in Louisville over high-speed fiber installations. The city has already been engaged in a lawsuit with AT&T over utility pole access after the city passed an ordinance in 2016 that would allow ISPs such as Google Fiber to make use of utility poles owned by AT&T.

The lawsuit was filed after Google Fiber announced that Louisville would be one of the next cities for its ultra high speed service. AT&T Fiber is one of Google's biggest gigabit internet rivals in the US, as previously reported in TechRepublic.

Simrall said, "TPA has done this before in other municipalities, lobbying hard against this, saying it's a loss of taxpayer money and saying the private ISPs already have this service available. But we've asked repeatedly for AT&T and Spectrum to share their fiber maps with us. We've offered to sign nondisclosure agreements every time they say it is proprietary information, but they don't provide their fiber maps and so we cannot corroborate those claims."

The high-speed fiber installation project could pay for itself over time as excess capacity in the network would be leased out to ISPs to generate new revenue. If 20% of the capacity was leased, the city would generate $5.8 million annually, based conservative estimates of national lease rates, and that number could go as high as $41.4 million, Simrall said.

If the project isn't approved, the city will have three options:

  1. Limit high-speed internet to the existing 21.3 mile footprint in downtown Louisville.
  2. Lease high-speed internet from a private ISP at a higher cost, which is approximately $25,000 per connected device.
  3. Slowly build out at full cost, which could take decades. It took the city 20 years to build the exiting 21.3 mile stretch.

"By building this, we are building for the future. We will, in essence, have the foundation for smart city technologies and it will be much cheaper than if we do it later, on our own," she said.

Three takeaways for TechRepublic readers:

  1. The city of Louisville wants to install 97 miles of fiber optic cabling, and the budget including this project goes up for vote on June 22.
  2. A national group is undertaking an intense lobbying effort to prevent it from happening, and the group has taken similar measures in other cities.
  3. The city of Louisville wants the high-speed internet in place so that it can create a foundation for smart city technologies.

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