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Council embraces Gig Austin; Aiming for every home

The Austin City Council is ready to support broadband.

Specifically, it’s ready to support a $32.9 million project to bring a data fiber network throughout the city of Austin and some surrounding rural areas.

The council got an update on Monday from Vision 2020’s Community Wide Technology Committee on Gig Austin, the nonprofit initiative to bring high-speed Internet and massive amounts of data to the city through a gigabit-level network.

“What we’re looking at is a fiber optic cable to every home, school and business,” Chris Holt, committee chairman, told the council Monday during a work session.

Vision 2020’s Community Wide Technology committee released the results of a feasibility study in July 2014 that shows a high-speed fiber network throughout the city of Austin is a sustainable venture.

That high-speed data network would cover homes and businesses throughout the Austin Public Schools district boundaries. It could provide Internet speeds of up to 1 Gig per second, or hundreds of times faster than normal Internet speeds.

The project, dubbed Gig Austin, was estimated at that time to cost about $35 million to build. The committee also hopes to use state and federal grants, and funding from other partners and nonprofits, to pay for the project.

Yet Vision 2020 Director of Vision Creation Laura Helle said earlier this month the committee hasn’t found many private funding opportunities for broadband projects on Gig Austin’s scale.

Minnesota lawmakers created the Office of Broadband Technology in 2014, but the state only dedicated about $20 million in potential grants across the state this year and $10 million for 2016.

To that end, Vision 2020 volunteers are looking to local entities to see if they would contribute to the project.

Austin Utilities, which would own the network infrastructure, is expected to contribute about $3 million. Gig Austin will also include a third-party telecommunications company, which will contribute $14.5 million as the entity that will provide services, run billing and other things.

That leaves $15.5 million, which Vision 2020 volunteers hope will be funded through contributions from the city, Mower County, Austin Public Schools, the Hormel Foundation and more.

About 30 percent of the remaining money could be covered through grants, as about 30 percent of the project costs will go toward infrastructure for rural homes, which are classified as underserved in terms of data connection by state and federal telecommunications agencies.

Support in spite of challenges

Though there are concerns about how many residents would switch their Internet provider to Gig Austin, council members said they would support the project moving forward.

“We have to look at the future,” Council member Judy Enright said. “We can’t look at right now, we have to look at 20 years from now when our grandkids and their kids are growing up.”

Mayor Tom Stiehm agreed and noted communications changes “are getting faster and faster” as technology grows.

Vision 2020 officials pointed out the project would likely receive some pushback from telecommunications companies in the area. Charter Communications and other companies drastically dropped their prices in response to similar broadband initiatives in other cities, which may cause some residents to think twice about turning to Gig Austin once those companies use the same tactics here.

Despite that, Vision 2020 projections show Gig Austin can be successful even if only 30 percent of homes switch to the broadband project once it’s complete.

“We can’t compete on pricing,” Helle said. “We have to compete on the quality of our product.”

Holt pointed out such competition would ultimately benefit residents, as more people would likely be able to afford Internet if companies dropped their prices.

Vision 2020 will soon meet with county and school officials to discuss supporting the project. It’s unclear how much each entity would have to contribute to the project, as Vision 2020 has yet to hear from major private donors such as the Hormel Foundation on their willingness to contribute to Gig Austin.

Holt said the project would take about 18 to 24 months to build and could begin next year if all goes well.