Superior, Wisconsin Takes Substantial Step Toward Municipal Fiber

Just a year after city leaders of Superior, Wisconsin (pop. 26,000) passed a resolution declaring fiber optic cabling critical infrastructure, officials are beginning to put the city’s money behind an action plan. In August, a majority of City Council members voted to adopt a plan to develop a city-owned fiber network and Superior Mayor Jim Paine proposed to reserve the bulk of the city’s American Rescue Plan federal relief funds to back the project.

The recent 8-2 City Council vote gave the green light to move forward with Connect Superior – a plan to construct open access, fiber optic broadband infrastructure reaching every resident, community anchor institution and business in the city. 

As Mayor Paine plans to budget no less than $10 million of the city’s $17 million in Rescue Plan funds to finance the project, Superior’s legislative and executive officials are largely united behind the decision to pursue the path laid out in a Broadband Master Plan [pdf] developed for the city by EntryPoint Networks.

City Councilors’ adoption of the Master Plan is a significant step forward, even as there are still numerous motions the City Council will need to approve in order for municipal fiber to become a reality. 

The next phase of the project involves designing and planning the network and hiring the contractors who will build it. City Council members will have to approve every contract with every consultant, design, and engineer firm along the way; as well as the Mayor’s American Rescue Plan budget in order to award the funds necessary to get the project rolling.

In a recent interview with ILSR, the City Council President Tylor Elm, who first proposed the idea for municipal fiber to Mayor Jim Paine several years ago, said the overwhelming support of the City Council demonstrated during the Master Plan vote provides a good perspective on how the project will fare.

Community Savings

The main objective of the Connect Superior project is reducing the cost of Internet access for Superior’s residents and businesses by 20 to 25 percent, while improving network speed and reliability.

A significant community savings is expected annually for the citizens of Superior, as it is projected that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who use the municipal network will charge $46 to $55 per month for residential gigabit speed service. 

The savings generated for businesses by the network will also be substantial, Elm said, noting that the projected cost of gigabit service for businesses is estimated to be $75 per month. 

Currently, the cost of fiber service for businesses in Superior is discouragingly high. According to the Broadband Master Plan, fiber Internet service available to businesses through CenturyLink costs $925 per month, requires a 60-month contract, and provides only 500 megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical speeds. While many large businesses in Superior have access to fiber Internet service, the cost to build-out fiber infrastructure can be prohibitive to small businesses.

Mayor Paine and Councilor Elm hope to drastically lower overhead costs for small businesses with the fiber infrastructure.

“If you rely on a 1 gig Internet connection or if a 1 gig Internet connection can serve your business better, you almost have to locate your business in Superior,” Mayor Jim Paine said in an interview with ILSR. “I imagine unprecedented economic growth. It will be like being the first city to get electricity 150 years ago.”

The network, projected to cost $31 million to construct, will also drastically cut the cost of intergovernmental communications for the city of Superior. In 2019, City Councilor Craig Sutherland said, in advocating for the move, that the city as a whole would spend $160 million over the next twenty years for broadband access. He also told the Superior Telegram that “because companies provide the infrastructure, they control the market.” 

A Paradigm Shift

In Superior, residents and businesses currently have two options for wireline Internet service: cable operator Charter Spectrum and telephone incumbent CenturyLink (now called Lumen). According to the city's Broadband Master Plan, the average Internet download speed is 76.3 Mbps and the average upload speed is 10.8 Mbps. Over 50 percent of respondents to a recent survey ranked the Internet service offered by their current ISP as either poor or fair.

Ensuring residents and businesses have the ability to switch ISPs in real-time was of the utmost importance to the community. For that reason, the city is pursuing a unique network model to answer residents’ calls for increased competition. The city’s Broadband Master Plan calls for constructing an automated open access network in which subscribers can instantaneously select and change Internet service providers using a specially-designed web portal. The automated open access model has proven successful in Ammon, Idaho, where it reduced costs for Internet service and improved competition. 

“One of the greatest barriers [to competition] right now is if someone wants to switch from Charter Spectrum to CenturyLink or to a different wireless provider that process can take weeks, maybe months in the current climate . . . It’s an incredible amount of work. So, creating that ease of switching and competition, that’s the paradigm shift that we’re talking about,” Elm said. “With the automated open access model, you can switch your Internet provider within a minute if you’re having problems.”

Elm is also enthusiastic about the potential to scale the fiber network when necessary to meet increasing bandwidth demands. Once the city of Superior demands it, just by switching the headends of the fiber network, the system will be able to deliver up to symmetrical 10 gigabit speed Internet connections.

Public Engagement 

The city is aiming for a 40 percent take-rate, and the likelihood that will occur seems relatively high.  

In December 2019, the city began surveying Superior residents to assess current sentiment regarding existing Internet services and gauge the level of interest in a municipal network.

In response to the survey, 73 percent of respondents said they would support a municipal network, with nearly another 23 percent of respondents saying they would possibly support the network. Only 3.9 percent said they would not support the network, according to Superior’s Broadband Master Plan.

The survey also revealed that 98.6 percent of Superior residents consider Internet speed to be “very important or important,” and nearly 95 percent consider having a choice in ISPs as being “very important or important.” 

“The support has been pretty overwhelming,” said Mayor Paine, adding that Superior residents have been the local government’s best political allies throughout the process. “When people try to say that there’s good [Internet] service in Superior, it’s the users that are out there . . . regular citizens that stepped forward to say ‘No, it’s not good service. Especially in a pandemic.’”

Header image of Superior, WI and image of Superior Warehouse Co. courtesy of Flickr user Cragin Spring via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.