Duluth hires broadband firm as it mulls larger investment

Consultants will analyze the feasibility of building out a publicly owned fiber-optic system.

Installing fiber optic cable
A reel of innerduct, the tubing to carry optical fiber, sits at a construction site where cable was being installed on Second Street in Duluth, near the St. Louis County Courthouse, on Aug. 24, 2011.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — City officials have retained the services of the same firm its neighbor used to explore its options as Superior contemplates a massive investment in broadband technology .

The Duluth Economic Development Authority voted Wednesday to spend up to $65,000 to have EntryPoint LLC, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, advise it on the prospects for a publicly owned fiber-optic system.

Chris Fleege, director of Duluth's planning and economic development department, explained that the city is considering the possibility of building an open-access broadband system.

Fleege referred to broadband service as "critical infrastructure," comparing it to other basic utilities, such as water, gas and electrical service.

"The idea is that with municipal ownership and an open-access platform, it will encourage competition," he said. "But the infrastructure is more than one-third of the cost alone. So, by being able to use and leverage our debt financing with long-term bonds, we can basically build the network for probably the cheapest, and then create the infrastructure that then internet service providers — ISPs — can operate on."


In her "State of the City" address, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson referred to broadband as a modern-day essential. "Yet, many Duluth residents deal with unreasonably high prices, unreliable service or no viable access altogether," she said. "Only 6% of Duluth has access to high-speed fiber-optic internet. This is unacceptable and holding us back as a community.

"My commitment is to continue to push with all of my might to ensure that every Duluthian has affordable, reliable high-speed internet," Larson pledged.

Fleege noted that the City Council approved a resolution last year authorizing the city to look at what could be done to increase and improve broadband access throughout Duluth. He said EntryPoint's work could better position the city to apply for grants in support of a project.

Council President and DEDA Commissioner Arik Forsman said that while the council supports efforts to improve broadband access and affordability, "that resolution didn't take a position that there was any one best way of doing that."

"As a commissioner and somebody who does economic development, I think it's obvious that broadband is really necessary, and hopefully this will help get some state funds in," Forsman said. "But as a city councilor, I have some reservations abut a publicly owned network, to be frank, because we also have to figure out how to pay for our streets and our infrastructure that we already don't have enough money for. So, I am open to the results of the study."

Superior is further along with its broadband plans. In March, the city entered the first phase of its Connect Superior project , approving a contract with Colorado-based Magellan Advisors to design a system, develop a business plan and seek grants to support the initiative.

EntryPoint estimates it will need about $31 million to build out a system in Superior. The firm also had submitted a proposal to see the project through to completion, but the city of Superior favored Magellan's offer. Superior Mayor Jim Paine said the feasibility of the project remains under evaluation.

Building the network will probably gobble up in six months the $5.5 million the city of Duluth is preparing to invest.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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