At a December 15 Bozeman City Commission meeting, broadband advocates, local incumbents, and city staff all had their say on the idea of an open access network. The hearing was part of a process that began last year, when the idea of a public network was first brought up. Bozeman issued an RFP last spring for help in planning their next steps, and eventually selecting a consultant to shepherd the process from a feasibility study and public input through to final planning. We wrote in more detail about the start of this planning phase back in August.
At the December meeting, Bozeman Economic Development Director Brit Fontenot asserted that "The existing model of Internet service provision is outdated," and laid down for the Commissioners the broad outlines of plan for a public-private partnership to create an open access network involving anchor businesses, the city, the local school district, and Bozeman Deaconess Hospital. A memo submitted by Mr. Fontenot in advance of the meeting, as well as a series of other documents relating to the planning process including a consultant summary report, are available on the city’s website [PDF].
Several local citizens spoke on the proposal at the Commission meeting in addition to Mr Fontenot. According to the consultant, a survey of city businesses found that nearly two-thirds were dissatisfied with their current Internet service. This claim was supported by local business owner Ken Fightler of Lattice Materials, who according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle
said that [his] company employs 50 people in Bozeman but struggles with "really abysmal Internet." They've talked to every major provider in town trying to find a better option, he said, but have found everything available involves either mediocre speeds or unaffordable pricing.
Perhaps the most interesting comments came from a representative of one of the local incumbents:
Jason Weathers, with Charter Communication, one of the city's major Internet providers, told the commission that he agreed with much of what was being said.
The company has 130 miles of fiber cable in operation already, he said, but installing the final section to connect the existing network to homes or businesses tends to be expensive, driving up the price
The open-access network proposal "has a lot of things that benefit us as a provider," Weathers said.
By providing neutral last mile infrastructure for multiple independent ISPs to use, publicly-owned networks can lower barriers to entry and facilitate competition, driving down prices and improving service. There is nothing revolutionary in this idea, but it is unusual to hear an incumbent admit that it has merit. More often, incumbents who have already paid off their inferior copper or coaxial cable networks are reluctant to open themselves up to competition on a level playing field.
The meeting concluded with the Bozeman City Commissioners directing Fontenot’s Economic Development Office to come back in February with a draft of an amendment to the city’s “Growth Policy” that incorporates elements of the Bozeman Master Fiber Plan - in effect, to draft a way to put the plan into legal action. With neighboring cities like Butte, Missoula, and Livingston in various phases of consideration or construction of their own networks, Bozeman is feeling the pressure to move forward and stay economically competitive.