Harnessing its American Rescue Plan funds, the city of Syracuse is seeking a partner to launch a pilot project as a precursor to creating a citywide municipal broadband network and to support the city’s broader digital inclusion efforts.
In his 2022 State of the City address, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh laid out the vision, recognizing that now is a time of opportunity.
"At no time in the past half century have conditions aligned so favorably for the City of Syracuse," Walsh said. "Population is growing. Graduation rates are rising. Private investment and job creation are again on the upswing. Our city fund balance has grown. The American Rescue Plan provides an unprecedented injection of federal aid — $123 million – to address challenges created and made worse by the pandemic. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework will pour tens of millions into the infrastructure challenges that always seemed just out of reach – roads, water, and broadband."
Syracuse wants to seize the opportunity by investing in both improved telecommunication infrastructure and digital literacy programs.
It has led the mayor’s office to issue a Request-for-Proposals (RFP) for the design, implementation and maintenance of a municipal network that would target households in Syracuse not currently served by the city’s incumbent providers (AT&T, Spectrum, and T-Mobile Home Internet).
The deadline for submitting proposals is 2:30 pm ET October 11.
Seeking Open Ended Innovative Proposals
Similar to a recent request for proposals from Onondaga County (where Syracuse is the county seat), the city is seeking open-ended and innovative proposals. City officials have adopted a technology neutral approach and are not specifically asking for proposals to build a fiber network as most new municipal broadband proposals involve. Still, the city does have some parameters in mind.
The pilot network must offer download speeds of at least 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) and target households in census tracts with the lowest rates of Internet access. The city also wants to address affordability and is seeking proposals that will offer low cost service options for low-income subscribers for a minimum of two years. Beyond that, the city wants proposals that are scalable as the vision is to eventually expand the network to serve all 421,000 residents who currently call Syracuse home.
As it stands now, Syracuse has a 31 percent poverty rate and a deep digital divide. An estimated 25 percent of households do not have Internet access of any kind and 45 percent of households lack adequate broadband to support multiple users.
One thing the city has yet to decide on, however, is who will ultimately own the network infrastructure. The RFP envisions two possible models: one in which the city retains complete ownership of the network and one in which the city co-owns the network. Under the co-ownership model, the city would co-invest with a partner with the city retaining exclusive use of certain parts of the network to support municipal functions. Once the network is up and running, the city would consider a revenue sharing agreement for commercial uses.
The pilot project will be funded with a portion of the city’s $123 million in Rescue Plan dollars, although the exact amount that will be used for the pilot project will be determined by the financial models proposed through the RFP process.
City officials are also actively seeking other sources of funding, including Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) grant funds administered through the state’s ConnectALL initiative.
Powering Up ‘Syracuse Surge’
The proposed network is an extension of the “Syracuse Surge” plan – a smart city growth strategy Mayor Walsh announced in his 2019 State of the City address as his office set out to modernize the city and help it thrive in the new economy.
We’re taking the long view here. As we’re going into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, that is going to be based on connectivity and the Internet of things, we’re making a technology infrastructure investment that puts us ahead of every other city in the country in advancing those technologies. It puts us in a once-in-a-generation position to surge ahead to not only compete in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but to thrive in it. This extends far beyond my time as mayor.
“Syracuse Surge” was initially funded with money from the Upstate Revitalization Initiative, drawing from the $500 million awarded by the state for economic development projects in Central New York. The initiative is a collaboration with Onondaga County, local institutions and corporate partners.
The city also recently approved using $430,835 of its Rescue Plan funds to support a “Digital Empowerment Program,” which will hire four digital navigators to help residents get the devices and training they need to be effective online.
The city has also deployed free Wi-Fi service at public buildings such as City Hall and City Hall Commons as well as free public Wi-Fi access at five neighborhood-based community centers.
Surge and Then Some
Using “Syracuse Surge” as a launch pad, city leaders want to go beyond just getting residents and businesses better broadband. They are looking to leverage high-speed Internet access as a tool to empower employment opportunities, which is why they have initiated several workforce training programs: Electrical Mechanical Technician and Surge Advanced Manufacturing.
The city has also hosted the Syracuse Surge Summit to gather and connect partners, including JP Morgan Chase Advancing Cities; Microsoft; Onondaga County; CenterState CEO; Syracuse University School of Information Studies; and other education, business, and philanthropic partners.
Now is a time of opportunity for Syracuse. Since 2019, they have been focusing on a technology plan that includes access to devices, broadband and the skills to use it. The partnerships, the momentum and the planning developed since then puts them in a good place to take advantage of current and future federal funds.
Inline image of Eastside neighborhood, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)