San Marcos, Texas Votes to Look for Partnerships and Alternatives to Building Municipal Network

The San Marcos City Council held a working session in August to review a presentation on the state of broadband in the Texas city and decide whether it should pursue a municipal broadband option. While some members wanted to pursue a fiber-to-the-home municipal network after the presentation, others pushed back despite the fact that the city has its own fiber I-Net (Institutional Network). City council ultimately voted to look for partnerships and alternative options, as opposed to funding and operating its own network. 

Existing I-Net

Sitting just south of Austin, Texas’ state capitol, San Marcos (pop. 63,000) has been developing an I-Net since 2000, when it entered a franchise agreement with Grande Communication and got access to 12 strands of dark fiber to connect city facilities. In 2018, the city developed a “Master Fiber Plan” that would expand the I-Net, further connecting critical infrastructure. The project was funded by general, water and electric capital improvement project funds and construction began in 2020.

Currently, that fiber network has enabled all city facilities to provide public wireless access, and American Rescue Funds have been approved by council to expand public access at the library and city parks.

The presentation to council noted that there are currently eight Internet Service Providers in the San Marcos area, with average download speeds in the city of around 127 Megabits per second (Mbps). There are DSL, cable, wireless, satellite, and fiber options, with fiber covering 43 percent of households inside city limits.

Lack of Competition

While 100 percent of San Marcos has a 25/3 Mbps service option from three different providers, only two percent has three 100/10 Mbps options. The lack of competition is partially why the city council wanted this presentation: to weigh the costs and benefits of getting into the market and offering more affordable and reliable options to residents. 

“What I’m thinking is, just like we were able to do with our electric utility, is to be able to provide for people in their time of need, and the city is best positioned to [provide broadband], whereas private industries can take advantage of people or the situation,” Council member Maxifield Baker said at the meeting.

The presentation pointed out a few things for the council to consider with a city-funded and -owned broadband system: a large up front investment, the timeline for implementation, ongoing maintenance costs, and the cost/benefits of only providing a citywide service.

Council members opposed to the idea of a municipal network claimed that the ultimate monthly cost of service wouldn't be any cheaper than current service by existing ISPs, even though a recent Harvard study shows that community networks lead to lower bills.

Unfortunately, San Marcos City Council ultimately voted to look into alternatives such as partnerships with private entities, the school district, and using American Rescue Funds to subsidize Internet bill assistance programs. If the city does move forward with a partnership, council agreed to set the baseline for service at 100 Mbps download.