Madison, WI Tests Public-Private Partnerships to Reduce its Digital Divide

Child tapping

“For them, it’s the Internet or food.”  That’s the way Richard Beadles, Technical Services Manager  in Madison, Wisconsin, described the dire broadband circumstances of residents in four low income multiple dwelling units now targeted by the City to benefit from its new digital divide effort. Over the next two years, the City will invest $500,000 in general obligation capital funds to experiment with a creative public private partnership to bring fiber-to-the-building services to more than 1,000 underserved families.

The City of Madison has been attacking the community’s digital divide from an anchor institution angle for years and using public-private partnerships to get there. “BTOP layed the framework,” said Beadles. Mayor Paul Soglin made digital equity a priority five years ago, and the City won a $10 million BTOP grant to build a fiber middle mile network to connect its municipal buildings and libraries, higher education, schools and other municipalities in the area. The new Metropolitan Unified Fiber Network (MUFN) was born. In exchange for using part of the network for commercial services, a company called Wisconsin Independent Network (WIN) connected all the schools and the 14 community centers to fiber and gave them free 100 Mbps symmetrical service. A non-profit called DANEnet managed the network and data communications for those community centers. Then two years ago, the City budgeted and fiber connected another 10 cultural centers. WIN was required to provide free Internet service to the centers by contract and worked with ResTech Services to provide 100 Mbps service at no cost.

MUFN’s fiber backbone became an asset the City utilized to attract a private partner to this current digital divide effort. After an RFP was issued, ResTech Services won the bid. Under the two-year pilot, the City will extend fiber off its MUFN backbone to the four pilot areas, and ResTech will manage, oversee the build process, and provide a variety of services over the network, from a minimum package of 10Mbps symmetrical broadband for $9.95/month up to 100 Mbps symmetrical service for $45 per month. A minimal video package will also be offered. The creative key to this approach is the use of G.Fast technology produced by Adtran that can utilize twisted copper pair or even coaxial lines already in the building. The cost savings of this City fiber-to-existing-Cat3 network for ResTech are enormous.

Add to this that the City will be offering educational services and computers. DANEnet along with a local computer refurbishing company, Cascade Asset Management, will provide to the residents free or low cost computers with embedded Windows/Microsoft software. Computers will be given out for free if the user is Microsoft Qualified, using various measures of low income such as student use of the free school lunch program. Otherwise, computers will cost $40-$50.

“It was building the relationships that carried the City forward [from its BTOP days],” noted Beadles. The City will test how these technology partnerships unfold, and see if the project can be extended further into the community. Said Beadles: “ If we end up creating a competitive environment, that’s good. If there were a commercial case for offering low cost internet service, there would be no need for us.”

And that’s local Internet choice at its best.

[photo credit: Flickruser Cheriejoyful]