Austin has been thinking about getting a gig for a while now. The city of 25,000 near Minnesota’s southern border had campaigned to be picked for the initial Google Fiber deployment, but was disappointed when Google selected Kansas City instead in 2011. As with some other cities around the country, however, the high profile Google competition got Austin thinking about the benefits of a gigabit fiber network, and how they might bring it to their residents. Last month, a committee tasked with bringing such a network to every premises in Austin released a feasibility study they commissioned, with generally favorable results.
The study recommended further exploration of a universal fiber optic network, but found the idea to be generally feasible. The cost of such a network was estimated at $35 million, and would cover the entire footprint of the Austin Public School District, which extends to rural addresses well beyond the city limits. The study recommended universal fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) for many of the same reasons we’ve been talking about it for years: its nearly unlimited data capacity and speed, future-proof and damage-resistant properties, and reliability.
The study was commissioned by the Community Wide Technology committee of the Vision2020 campaign, a broader planning movement to revitalize the greater Austin area. The Technology committee has since launched the GigAustin website and campaign to advocate for a FTTP network.
The GigAustin team has representation from the Austin Public School District, the city public power utility, private companies and foundations, and other potential anchor institutions. Hormel, the food products giant headquartered in Austin (and the people who brought you the SPAM Museum), is a major employer in the area and their presence on the GigAustin team and support of the feasibility study is notable.
This is no slam dunk, however. The study did not recommend a specific funding source, and there appears to be little appetite for significant public expenditure:
Committee members say the project could be funded in large part by state and federal grants and don’t currently plan to seek local tax dollars to pay for Gig Austin.
...The FCC set $100 million aside for broadband projects on July 11. In addition, Minnesota created the Office of Broadband Development in 2013 and budgeted $20 million to it earlier this year.
Securing grant funding from outside sources is nice, but not always possible - particularly when much of the community already has DSL and cable available. Given that the Austin network alone is projected to cost $35 million, it is easy to see how quickly $20 million or even $100 million could dry up on a statewide or federal scale. There are also hopes in Austin for securing grants from private nonprofits, which also seems like a long shot to make a significant dent in project costs. It is worth noting, however, that the funding for the feasibility study itself came from private sources: the Blandin Foundation, Hormel Foundation, and Ag Star Financial.
There also does not appear to be any consensus yet on an ownership model, with both public and private options on the table. The public power utility, while participating in the GigAustin campaign, does not appear interested in ownership:
Austin Utilities General Manager Mark Nibaur said the company will likely partner with Vision 2020 and may contribute dollars to Gig Austin, but the utilities board may decide not to operate the fiber network.
“I don’t think there’s any interest in ownership,” he said.
While leaving the governance and ownership structures as an open question, the study did note that private providers were unlikely to build such a FTTP network any time in the foreseeable future (a finding that will surprise exactly no one).
The next step in the process is a survey of Austin area residents to determine the level of interest in ultra high speed connectivity. The feasibility study estimated a take rate of 40-50% would be necessary for the network to be sustainable. The survey got under way in July, and should be completed in August or September.