The Houston City Council approved a contract last week that will lead to a municipally-owned system to provide high-speed internet to local residents and businesses.
The approval comes following a consultant’s report that was recently received by the city, which earlier also sought input from local citizens.
Rob Harrington, economic development director for the City of Houston, said communities are investing in telecommunication networks for a variety of reasons — including economic development, improving education and healthcare. Houston’s fiber-to-the-home system will include speeds up to 1 gig, which are currently unavailable anywhere in Texas County. Houston owns its own electrical system and infrastructure, including poles.
According to a consultant’s study completed for Houston, about 15 miles of fiber overhead and another three underground will be required to blanket the city. ACRS Telecommunications Consulting and Engineering Services, a telecommunication engineering firm from Oklahoma City, Okla., was hired last Tuesday to provide detailed engineering services. The contract, not to exceed $350,000, will provide drawings and documentation required for the bidding process. Equipment required for the system, set to deploy in about six months, will be located at the Houston Storm Shelter at First and Pine streets. The cost of the project will be paid using city reserves that will be repaid by using profits from the system.
Phase one of the project will include about eight miles of fiber that will connect city buildings, water towers and sewer lift stations in a move that will reduce telecommunication costs. Phase two includes a loop that picks up the rest of the community.
The Community Broadband Networks Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an organization that helps communities expand accessibility, estimates there are about 800 cities in the United States that have invested in bringing faster internet. About 500 are served by some form of municipal network and more than 300 are served by a cooperative. City Administrator Scott Avery said the project will also allow the city to offer 1 gig service to any potential manufacturer locating in the city.
In Houston, internet service is provided by CenturyLink, a telephone firm; CableAmerica, who entered the market as a cable provider and also now provides internet and phone service; and Interconnect, a subsidiary of Intercounty Electric Cooperative Association, which was created with the purchase of a not-for-profit, TRAIN. A Sho-Me Technologies unit covers a portion of the downtown business district. None offers speeds matching those set to be provided by the city.
In the county, few locations are able to receive the Federal Communication Commission’s definition of broadband service, which is a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
The city says its system will maintain a consistent speed, which is the same for downloads and uploads, depending on the tier of service selected by customers. No pricing has been set. According to the earlier study conducted for the city, some internet users would see significant savings in their connectivity charges, including the Houston School District.
Christopher Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks, said Friday that his organization is seeing projects in communities like Houston, where faster access doesn’t match that of metropolitan areas. “However, we are also seeing communities that have what would be called decent, modern service, also considering these networks because they are frustrated with the constant price hikes and poor customer service,” he said.
In Springfield, City Utilities will expand its own fiber optic network network by more than 1,000 miles over three years to enable high-speed affordable services to all of the community. A gigbit of service will be offered to residents who purchase it.
Mitchell, a national expert on municipal broadband and how local governments are ensuring their businesses and residents have the internet access they need to thrive, said there are challenges for local governments seeking to bring better connectivity to their constituents, but they are almost always worth the effort after much hard work.
“That challenge is keeping many on the sidelines as they hope some new technology will make the hard work unnecessary,” he said.
“I've been working in this space for 12 years and read about people hoping for that magic technology since the late ’90s. I see nothing on the horizon that suggests to me that these networks will soon not be necessary to ensure high quality of life and economic opportunity.”