Consultants working with the City of Mansfield – the seat of DeSoto Parish – are nearing completion of a comprehensive community assessment as the small northwest Louisiana community of about 4,500 is setting the table to build a municipal fiber network.
In October 2021, Mansfield’s five-member city council voted unanimously to hire Louisiana Connected to lead the study in partnership with Lit Communities. After the council vote, Mansfield Mayor John H. Mayweather, Sr. described the decision as the first step in establishing a public-private partnership to bring reliable and affordable high-speed Internet access to every household and business in the city.
In a press statement released after the October vote, Mayor Mayweather said:
Representatives of Louisiana Connected were allowed to make a presentation to the City Council at one of our meetings earlier this year regarding a consideration to build our own broadband system. After hearing the advantages of bringing such a network to Mansfield, we were on board then. And now after listening further, we are even more excited about this opportunity. This will be good for all the citizens of Mansfield.
Pandemic Push to Action
As with many communities around the county now considering building their own municipal broadband network, a major motivator for Mansfield was the number of students in this majority African-American city who struggled to participate in distance learning triggered by the pandemic.
In a press release after the vote to move forward with the community assessment, Mansfield parent LaKimberly Edwards spoke to the need for universal access to high-speed Internet connectivity.
“As a parent who struggled to help my kids with remote learning this past year and a half I am so pleased the city of Mansfield is taking the initiative to provide us with an important and necessary utility for our economic future,” Edwards said. “The pandemic revealed that broadband is as crucial to our survival as water and electricity.”
The effort has the backing of leaders across the community, provided it has a sound business plan.
Alderman Joseph Hall said “a municipal owned fiber network’s number one goal is to provide affordable, efficient broadband to every household in the city. But at the same time a feasibility study will inform us whether a municipal owned broadband system can pay for itself.”
DeSoto Parish Police Juror Thomas Jones thinks the time is ripe to move forward with the proposal, pointing to the once-in-a-generation opportunity for the city to leverage the unprecedented amount of federal funds available to build community broadband networks.
“There are billions of federal and state dollars allocated for cities to build their own broadband system. I agree with the city’s approach to make the commitment to begin looking at financing and building its own system while at the same time seeking federal and state subsidies to ensure the system is affordable for every household,” Jones said, adding that should Mansfield build its own network it will make it possible for the network to be extended into the more rural parts of the surrounding parish.
But, local support for the project goes beyond politicians and parents. Wesley United Methodist Church Pastor Anna Jackson, who was one of a handful of local pastors who wrote a letter to encourage the city to move forward, sees a municipal network not only as essential infrastructure but as a simple matter of survival in a connected world:
The Covid-19 pandemic gave us an indication that remote learning, working and living must be a key part of our long-term economic strategy. This will not be our last pandemic and Mansfield has to arm itself with an efficient broadband system for our own survival.
Community Assessment Nears Completion
Lit Communities CEO Brian Snider said the community assessment was nearly complete and would include a comprehensive analysis of the local market, the state of incumbent provider services, preliminary network design, a financial model and business plan, as well as a detailed strategy for seeking grants to build the network.
One thing the assessment and city officials will need to contend with is the fact that Louisiana is one of the 17 states in the nation with preemption laws that either outright ban municipal broadband networks or erect barriers to make it more difficult to build public networks.
In Louisiana those preemption laws require “municipalities to hold a referendum before providing any communications services and … impute to themselves various costs that a private provider might pay if it were providing comparable services. (Also), if a municipality does not hold a referendum, it must forgo any incumbent provider’s franchise and other obligations (e.g., franchise fees, PEG access, institutional networks, etc.) as soon as the municipality announces that it is ready to serve even a single customer of the service in question,” according to the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC), which tracks state preemption laws.
Nevertheless, Snider is confident Mansfield will be able to thread that needle should the city decide to build the network.
“Louisiana Connected and Lit are committed to moving Mansfield forward in a P3 (public-private partnership) type model that will benefit and get all residents access to fiber connectivity,” Snider said, adding that the finalized community assessment will likely be presented to city officials by the end of this month.
Inline image of DeSoto Parish map courtesy of Wikimidia Commons