ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal
City Hall is looking for private companies willing to help build and operate a broadband network that would provide faster, cheaper Internet service to Albuquerque residents and businesses.
Oh, and there’d be free Wi-Fi, too.
The project is part of an effort to create a new high-speed network in Albuquerque, starting along Central Avenue, according to city documents. Up to $1 million from the city’s bond program is available to help start the project.
But companies that already provide Internet service in Albuquerque aren’t keen on the idea. Comcast and CenturyLink say they’ve already invested heavily to make high-speed service available in New Mexico.
Mayor Richard Berry is an enthusiastic supporter of the broadband project. He sees it as a way to spur economic development, especially among industries that need the ability to move enormous amounts of data quickly, such as architecture firms or companies that do post-production work for the film industry.
“We don’t want to shy away from something just because it’s challenging,” Berry said in an interview. “… We’re trying to be very strategic.”
Comcast spokeswoman Cindy Parsons said her company believes competition benefits consumers.
But “government-owned or -subsidized networks distort the marketplace, often times leaving taxpayers with significant outstanding funding obligations and without much to show for them,” she said in a written statement.
She added that there are “countless examples of cities across the country that have ventured into this arena and have found themselves in a money-losing proposition.”
Peter Ambs, Albuquerque’s chief information officer, said similar projects have succeeded elsewhere. Google is building networks in Austin, Texas, and Kansas City, Mo., he said, and local governments have been getting involved in some cities, too.
The goal is to request proposals from interested companies in about two months, Ambs said. Free Wi-Fi – a wireless connection to the Internet – along Central Avenue or other services could start in roughly a year, Ambs said, if all goes well.
The project would involve installation of fiber-optic lines along Central, from 98th Street on the West Side to Tramway Boulevard near the foothills.
There may already be “dark fiber” – unused lines – available, and the city could fill in the gaps, Ambs said. Burying the lines isn’t likely to disrupt traffic, he said, because it can be done using “micro-trenches” just a few inches wide.
A private operator of the system would connect homes and businesses to the fiber lines along Central, Ambs said. The city’s work would act as a subsidy of sorts, allowing the private company to offer Internet service cheaper than it would be otherwise, he said.
The speeds would be far faster than what’s now offered by Comcast and CenturyLink, Ambs said.
The Internet service is moving from a “luxury to a necessity,” Ambs said, and the city project could help neighborhoods where few residents can pay for the speeds they need to, say, take a class online.
“The thirst for data and Internet is going to do nothing but increase,” Ambs said.
Berry said Central Avenue is a good spot to start the project because of the diversity of neighborhoods.
“We live in a digital world,” the mayor said. “We want to make sure that all of our citizens have the ability to tap into it.”
The price of high-speed Internet service in Albuquerque varies widely, especially because of the menu of options for buying it with telephone, television and similar services. CenturyLink advertises high-speed Internet, with no home phone required, for about $30 a month for the first year. Comcast offers Internet and some TV channels for about $40 a month for the first year.
Details on how much companies might charge through the city’s broadband project isn’t clear, though Ambs said he generally expects the service to be both cheaper and faster than what’s provided now.
CenturyLink spokesman David Gonzales said his company already invests hundreds of millions a year to bring broadband to people across the county.
“While we believe that public broadband networks that compete directly with private industry are not the best use of taxpayer dollars,” he said, “we support government initiatives to leverage existing infrastructure and extend broadband service to unserved areas.”
Parsons said Comcast is always analyzing the market and making adjustments.
The company has “increased Internet speeds 11 times over the past several years,” she said.
Sandoval County, just north of Albuquerque, ran into trouble after launching a broadband project in late 2004. The $3 million project was beset by delays and criticized for vague accounting.
Ambs said the city needs to be ready to help as more of its residents’ lives move online.
“It’s going to be a transformative project,” he said in an interview. “We want to be one of the top digital cities in the United States.”