Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 227

This is episode 227 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Chief Information Officer Paul Kronberger of Madison, Wisconsin, explains how the fiber network pilot project will help bridge the digital divide. Listen to this episode here.

Paul Kronberger: We specified we wanted to keep the costs very low and to remove as many barriers as possible for individuals to obtain this service.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 227 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Madison, Wisconsin, has embarked on a pilot project with multiple purposes. As the community seeks ways to improve connectivity citywide, they will use the project to collect data about benefits of providing services to the community. Simultaneously, the project will bring fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to areas of the city with the highest concentration of low-income households. In this interview, Chris talks with Paul Kronberger, Madison's Chief Information Officer, who offers more details about the Connecting Madison pilot program. In addition to describing the aims of the project, Paul explains how the city is using existing assets and how they're contending with restrictive state law as they embark on their partnership with a private ISP. Now, here's Chris with Paul Kronberger, Chief Information Officer for Madison, Wisconsin, discussing the pilot program to help bridge the city's digital divide.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another addition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today, I'm speaking with Paul Kronberger, the CIO of Madison, Wisconsin. Welcome to the show.

Paul Kronberger: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm also glad to have you here. It's a bit of a rivalry time between Minnesota and Wisconsin, but I'm happy to learn more about what's happening over there. For people who aren't familiar with Madison, the home of incredible football and basketball teams, can you tell them a little bit about your city?

Paul Kronberger: We're the state capital of Wisconsin. Our city has a population of about 250,000 or so. We're also home to the main campus of the University of Wisconsin. I mean, there's quite a few other four-year campuses and two-year campuses, but we're the largest, the central UW campus. It's a beautiful city. We're nestled between two good-sized lakes. The central part of the city is actually an isthmus. We have a diverse population and quite a few people who are in the technology area. We have some major government institutions, including the seat of state government. Many of the state agencies are centered here. We have the city of Madison, Dane County, the Madison school district, one of the largest technical colleges here, and another college called Edgewood College, which is a private institution, but it has a pretty diverse and large student body as well. We also are the home to some major corporations, including Epic Systems, which you probably know is a major healthcare IT provider, also American Family Insurance, Cuna Mutual, and a number of other corporations.

Christopher Mitchell: I think you're also home to one of the most interesting of the digital divide efforts that we've seen around the country, where the city has picked four neighborhoods and is building out a rather robust fiber optic network. That's the main thing we're going to talk about. We'll talk a little bit about future plans or discussions around a citywide network, but what can you tell us about the goals of this four-neighborhood network?

Paul Kronberger: We have been discussing the issue of the digital divide for some time, and there's been growing awareness the last few years. We've had a number of discussions with the mayor and other city officials. The mayor moved ahead on this by establishing a city committee that would help determine a direction to go in, and the committee is called the Digital Technology Committee. It has nine members. Two of them are alders, our elected officials, and then the other seven are citizen members. Then I and my staff staff the committee. One of our members is Barry Orton, who is a professor of telecommunications from the University of Wisconsin, I think pretty well-known in the broadband area. He's been a major contributor and part of the effort. In fact, he chairs a subcommittee called the Citywide Broadband Subcommittee. In the early discussions on the committee, we were trying to work through how can we address the digital divide, and discussions ranged in many different directions. Finally, we settled on an idea of doing a pilot project to wire one or more of some of the challenged neighborhoods in Madison, and we went through a selection process where basically we're looking at a number of areas. Madison already has some predefined areas called NRTs, which stands for Neighborhood Resource Team areas, and these were defined years ago as areas that need more attention from the city and more intensive, coordinated effort from the city. Our primarily-challenged neighborhoods have some factors that make them challenged. The committee went through a process and ended up selecting four areas for a pilot project. We weren't sure how to move forward on that, so we did a request for information to get some ideas on what vendors would propose like, "How would you do a pilot project? What technologies would you use? Wireless? Wired?" et cetera. We learned something from that, and then we moved ahead within RFP, a more formal procurement. Our committee, in discussing this, they felt that wireless was perhaps a better option. We structured our RFP to say that a wireless proposal would be preferred, but we were open to other technologies and proposals and would like to see whatever the responders -- whatever they submitted. As we received the responses and then evaluated the RFP, information from the different vendors and such, what came to the top was a solution from a local firm that was for a fiber solution. Basically, leverage the city's extensive fiber backbone and extend that network into each of these four pilot areas and basically have a Fiber-to-the-Premise in those areas. Then the vendor would actually provide the Internet services, and we specified we wanted to keep the costs very low and to remove as many barriers as possible for individuals to obtain this service. At this point, we're moving ahead with offering low-cost but high-speed Internet service for $10 a month. No gimmicks. No need to add on extra services or bundle, unless you wish to, but you don't have to.

Christopher Mitchell: Is that available to anyone that lives within the area, or does one have to qualify by having a certain kind of income or a child in the school system or something like that?

Paul Kronberger: It's available to every household within those defined areas, their defined geographic areas. We actually have it down to the individual address level.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. I found it really interesting. You mentioned the city's existing fiber network, which has a very cutesy name, MUFN. I'm assuming the first word is Madison.

Paul Kronberger: Actually, it's not the first word.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh, it isn't?

Paul Kronberger: Metropolitan. It's an acronym. It stands for Metropolitan Unified Fiber Network.

Christopher Mitchell: Ah, okay. I got those other three letters right. The private provider extended the network, but that fiber, was that entirely paid for by the city of Madison, or was that a partial where the city kicked in some and the provider kicked in some also?

Paul Kronberger: For the pilot project, the city is paying the capital costs of running that fiber to each of those households or apartments.

Christopher Mitchell: That's the entire cost, and then the city will also retain ownership of that, right?

Paul Kronberger: Yes. That's the plan. The stated purpose of the pilot project -- and I'm sorry. This is more background, but you may be aware of a Wisconsin state statute which places a number of requirements on any municipality that is thinking about a broadband service for its residents. One of the requirements is that, before any service is actually instituted, the city do a cost-benefit analysis and hold a public hearing and a number of other requirements such as that. The stated purpose of our pilot project is to gather data in order to do the cost-benefit analysis. We intend to move ahead with this pilot project, gather that data, and then have that available, but it also will be a very good learning opportunity for how services could be provided to the public.

Christopher Mitchell: Is this envisioned as a temporary project? If it is, I'm curious what happens at the end of that period to the fiber that's already been created.

Paul Kronberger: The city would take ownership of that, but in parallel with that, we are moving ahead with a major citywide Fiber-to-the-Premise project. It's really in parallel, and I think as we learn more, as we move along on that, that'll help determine or answer some of the questions about what becomes of the pilot infrastructure and will that continue to be used and be incorporated into, say, a citywide infrastructure.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that the state law also does is that if you became a service provider, there are some pretty stringent accounting requirements that I think are designed to basically make it infeasible for you to offer services. Is that part of the reason that you're so focused, that you're working with a private provider in providing this service?

Paul Kronberger: That's part of it. We take a step back, and we look at, "What does this mean, to be providing this type of service?" As an information technology department, I am not staffed up to do that. I do not have staff to provide those customer call services or help desk services. We really know that we have to work in partnership with the private sector to accomplish this. With our pilot project, we're doing that. We have the private sector extending that network, and they're going to actually provide the actual service and bill the residence for that service.

Christopher Mitchell: Is ResTech expecting that they will break even or make the profit that they may need solely through selling customers services?

Paul Kronberger: They're doing this as a for-profit corporation, so they would not be engaging in this if they didn't expect to make some money from it.

Christopher Mitchell: I guess the question, then, is for people -- Frankly, I think there's other cities that are going to be interested in doing similar things or, at the very least, evaluating if they would be able to. I'm curious. Does ResTech have to offer a lease payment to the city for using the fiber? What's their arrangement with the city in that regard?

Paul Kronberger: Right now, no. They do not. They do not lease the fiber. We're providing the money to build that network out, and they are not leasing it from the city, but they will utilize it and then complete the installations within the individual residences. Again, it's designed as a pilot project to help make this happen and move along and then give us the opportunity just to see what we learned from this pilot.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. There's a lot of cities that have had to figure this all out just using paper and math ahead of time. I think actually doing it will give you a much better sense of the true costs and opportunities. One of the things that I think is noteworthy, I think there's a growing trend where, 10 years ago, almost every city that got involved in this said, "Well, we're going to invest in fiber, but that fiber is going to have to pay for itself." Now, it seems like Madison, you're really treating this as infrastructure and as a digital divide effort where your number one goal is to provide social benefit. It's not to make sure that the fiber can maximize its value.

Paul Kronberger: That's correct. We're really looking at the social aspect of this, how to meet some of these needs for people who are affected by the digital divide.

Christopher Mitchell: If I can just ask a final question, since the fiber installs have been happening for some time, have there been any early lessons or big success stories, people being really excited about this available in their neighborhood? What's the reaction from the community been?

Paul Kronberger: It's been positive. I should mention other aspects of the projects. The pilot project for the digital divide is a three-pronged effort. The first is the actual network itself, to get that network to each residence. The second prong is education, digital literacy education. We've contracted with a local non-profit who is, and is going to continue, providing training and basic computer training for people and provide some basic help desk, rate-fixed types of services, and also the installation of computers for the residences. Then the third aspect of it is the computers themselves for the people. What we did is we partnered with another local corporation, actually one of our vendors, who really stepped up to the plate and coordinated the donation of computers from some of the large corporations in the area. Then they're processing any reconditioning that's necessary on those computers and are working hand in hand with our educational non-profit to get those deployed to residences as their services come online. We've been fortunate that several of the corporations locally have donated computers. We actually, at this point, have sufficient numbers of computers, and they're late-model, high-end, corporate computers that are perhaps two years old to three years old that are being refreshed by the corporations, and they're donating these to us. The equipment that's going to go out to the participants in the pilot project, it's going to be decent equipment. That's a three-pronged effort that's part of the project.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. It sounds somewhat similar to a project called Eliminate the Digital Divide and something that I think is a good model for communities anywhere, especially those that have large corporations locally that may have these recent computers that are nonetheless outdated for their needs. Then I just wanted to finish up by noting that you mentioned a citywide potential project. You have a feasibility study that I looked at, doing a citywide dark-fiber-type approach. We will look forward to following any progress there and hopefully talking with you as you move forward. I certainly hope that you're able to make it work out.

Paul Kronberger: Thank you. We're very hopeful about it, and we are really moving it to the next phase where we are planning to engage some outside resources to help us develop an implementation plan. When that's ready, we will then submit that to our city council. It would include options or recommendations for how to finance this and how to move forward on this. There's a very big decision point that'll come up next year for our city council on where we go with Fiber-to-the-Premise citywide, but we're not at that point yet.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well, I look forward to seeing what happens, and I just want to salute you for taking a novel approach and just going out there and figuring out how to get fiber to low-income areas and to gather the data that you ultimately need to figure out how to make it work citywide. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.

Paul Kronberger: You're welcome, and thanks for having me.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with Paul Kronberger, Chief Information Officer from Madison, Wisconsin. For more coverage, follow the Madison tag on MuniNetworks.org. We'll continue to follow developments as the project grows. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow MuniNetworks.org's stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you're out to get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thanks to the group mojo monkeys for their song “Bodacious,” licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 227 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.