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City council agrees to broadband Internet study

The Rochester City Council took the first step on Monday in considering the possibility of a municipally owned broadband Internet network.

The council agreed to allow Alcatel-Lucent , an Internet protocol networking and broadband firm, to produce a business case report for Rochester about whether it would be in the city's best interest to build and own its own broadband network. The free report will study the issue from technological, financial and socio-economic perspectives.

Council Member Michael Wojcik brought the topic up during the council's committee of the whole meeting. He invited representatives from Alcatel-Lucent and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance to brief the council on the benefits of looking into a municipal broadband network.

Council members have expressed dissatisfaction with the Internet and cable TV services of Charter Communications, which has a franchise agreement with the city that is up for renewal on March 31. The council members' comments are related to complaints they've received from constituents about Charter.

Advocates for municipal broadband networks say they can provide faster, more reliable Internet services at much cheaper costs, so that people across all socio-economic levels can afford it. As Wojcik and Alcatel-Lucent's Michael Brayen told the council, reliable and affordable Internet service is as essential today as electricity and clean water.

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"It would be better for our businesses, students and our future," Wojcik said during a brief press conference after the council meeting. "We can't be a first-class city without first-class broadband."

If the city builds its own fiber-optic network for broadband service, it would have a range of options for how to provide Internet and/or cable TV services. Those include hiring a company, like Alcatel-Lucent, to provide the Internet services or forming a public-private partnership with a company to do the same. Or, the city could provide the services on its own.

As would be expected, some council members were somewhat dubious about Brayen's offer to provide the free report, given his company's interest in being Rochester's broadband provider.

"You have to appreciate why I'd be skeptical of why you would want to do a free study for us," council President Randy Staver said.

Brayen admitted that he would, indeed, like to get Rochester's business, but he said his primary reason for traveling around the nation to educate city governments about municipal broadband networks has more to do with "net neutrality," or making sure that people of all incomes can afford reliable Internet services.

"It's a passion of mine, after 35 years in the industry," he said.

Staver and Council Member Ed Hruska both said that they don't consider Internet to be an essential service, as are electricity and clean water.

"No one has come up to me yet and said the Internet is an essential utility," Staver said.

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"I can count on one hand the number of people who have complained about broadband," Hruska said, adding that he's heard many more complaints about cable TV services.

Campion, on the other hand, said his work for DoApp Inc., which makes mobile apps, depends entirely on having fast, reliable broadband service. "Everybody I work with says Internet is a necessity."

Yet, Campion said he remains doubtful about municipally owned broadband networks. "It's up for debate whether any of them are successful … but (the Alcatel-Lucent report) is also an opportunity to begin the discussion," he said.

Wojcik pointed out that the council could hire a consultant to vet Alcatel-Lucent's report.

Brayen said that he and a colleague would begin working on it Monday and would have it completed in 60 to 90 days. They will provide the council will an update in about two weeks, he said.

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