City leaders in Gary, Indiana hope to have people singing a song first sung by the city’s most famous family. But instead of relying on The Jackson 5 to lead a reprisal of “Goin’ Back to Indiana,” the sheet music this time is a plan to “deploy ubiquitous, accessible and affordable high-speed broadband to every home and business within the City.”
Two weeks ago, the city issued a Request for Qualification as it seeks Internet service provider(s) for the city to partner with “to build, operate (and) maintain a government middle mile fiber ring leveraging the City’s ARPA funds and working together to obtain additional State funding to ensure the partner deploys commercial and residential retail broadband.” Bids are due by August 12.
While the city wants to build a fiber intergovernmental network to support the city’s government, the plan calls for a city-wide network “that raises all tides on the residential side. That is essential to Gary’s economic future,” Gary’s Chief Innovation Officer Lloyd Keith explained last week during an information session for potential partners.
The genesis of the proposed project, Keith explained, “came from us looking at a study during the pandemic and the issues we were having with students. We are basically inadequate as far as broadband access is concerned in comparison to other communities. So we looked at how we can go about resolving that situation.”
Despite the presence of AT&T and Comcast, Keith described his city of 67,000 just 30 miles southeast of Chicago as still being “underserved” as was made apparent when the city found numerous census tracts with a staggering number of residents who do not have home broadband service.
That’s why, Keith said, now is the time for Gary to leverage its Rescue Plan funds and the federal BEAD program to finance construction of a network that will cover the entire city.
Wanted: Long-term Partnership
When the city put together its Digital Equity Plan, officials found a dozen census tracts in the city in which between 26 percent up to as high as 50 percent of residents in those tracts did not have home Internet service – a tell-tale sign that Internet service in Gary is neither ubiquitous nor affordable (see image on right).
To address these connectivity challenges, the city is looking to partner with a private provider for “multiple years” and is open to various models being proposed.
“We are not looking to become a utility or operator. We are looking for a partner to do that,” Keith said, adding that the city would even entertain working with multiple partners to build the network.
Some utility poles in the city are owned by the city itself while the others are owned by the Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO). At present, the city does not currently own any fiber assets.
And while the city would entertain proposals that offer a mix of fiber and fixed wireless, fiber-to-the home is the preferred option. The city would also like to eventually offer free Wi-Fi service in the city’s parks.
Already Gary officials have committed to using up to $4 million of its $80 million in Rescue Plan funds to help finance construction. Additional funding will be sought via the state’s broadband grant program.
Keith said in order for Gary to be eligible to apply for a state grant, “we have to be a ‘broadband-ready city.’ An ordinance from the city is required and we expect that to happen in August and so we will be in compliance with what the state is asking for in terms of qualifying for a state grant.”
Joe Freddoso, former President and CEO of MCNC now with the consulting firm Mighty River, is advising the city on its plan along with Marketplace.city to support the project. Freddoso noted that while “Indiana is one of the more flexible states where municipalities can offer their own broadband service, Gary is not contemplating that. The city’s preference is looking for a long-term private partner so this is a private sector driven model.”
Bottom Line: Service for All Residents and Businesses
When asked if the city would seek to retain ownership of the network infrastructure, Keith said “that’s a question we are entertaining.”
From our perspective, it’s preferable for municipalities to retain ownership of network infrastructure as public ownership tends to ensure it is treated as a public good that all households should have access to instead of a private model where too often it leads to cherry-picking which households can get service. Still, even as we tout the success and benefits of municipal broadband, public-private partnerships are a viable solution for some communities, particularly communities who carefully evaluate and align each side’s needs as it pertains to risk, benefit, and control; and the inevitable trade-offs involved.
In any case, although the city has not conducted a formal feasibility study or contracted for high-level design and engineering, the broad contours of what the city is looking for can be found in the RFQ and the city’s informal Digital Equity Plan. And while certain details still need to be worked out, city officials made it clear that a centerpiece for any qualifying proposal is one that recognizes the importance of “offering (service to) all residents and businesses.”
“We are looking for a partner to walk with us through this entire endeavor,” Keith said. “The city is committed to this process and we are going to move as fast as we can.”
Inline image of census tract map courtesy of City of Gary