Recently, Edmonds City Councilmember Michael Plunkett asked me if I would be interested in joining the Citizens Technology Advisory Committee (CTAC), and I jumped at the chance. This committee was formed several years ago; its purpose is to advise city leaders on the best use of a fiber-optic cable that was given to the City by Homeland Security back in 2005.
At that time, Homeland Security wanted to run a fiber-optic cable to the ferry terminal, but in order to do so, they needed to get beneath Edmonds’ streets. In exchange for that access, the City was given 24 strands of fiber at no cost.
I’m interested in technology, so I recognize this as a valuable asset, which is why joining the committee is so appealing to me. To get the most from my volunteer role, I’ve also agreed to file a report with My Edmonds News about our committee meetings from time to time so the community can share in our discussions and progress.
Although the committee has been meeting for a few years, this was my first session and my task was to get up to speed with some of the background. Here is the overview that I took away from the meeting.
The principle question surrounding the fiber-optic cable has been what to do with it. With 24 strands, we have more than enough capacity to handle all of the City’s telecommunications, Internet and video needs, plus the same for every home in the city and more beyond that. It potentially gives the City an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of “wired” communities, which could in turn be helpful in attracting new “green” businesses to Edmonds, and with them, new sources of City revenue.
You can see why this would be important to Edmonds.
That being said, what was given the city was just strands of cable in the ground. The challenge is figuring out how to develop and use this asset to the highest benefit of the community. You can’t just plug into it and go, so how should we set it up? What infrastructure do we need to get the “juice” out of the cable and into the homes and businesses of the end user? How do we address things such as switching equipment, software, a billing system, a means to get connectivity from the cable to the actual end-users’ locations, and other issues?
One of the first things the City needed was to have the “right” to sell these services. Other providers of these services considered it unfair for a City to be able to compete with them in attracting customers. They said that the City could classify as a public utility and cut out the competition. So a lawsuit evolved.
The City of Edmonds was a pioneer in getting a court ruling that they could indeed sell these services to outsiders. They won the case and now had the right to actually explore the business opportunities of reselling these services to private entities.
During this time, the City set up its own internal information systems using the cable, and found it to be reliable, extremely fast and much more cost-effective than using outside service providers, so the value of the asset has been demonstrated.
Seeing the City make progress on this issue, Verizon (now Frontier) rushed its own fiber-optic system into the area to capture its share of the market before the City established its own operation. Originally planned to be completed by 2021, Frontier completed the project in 2009 — 12 years ahead of schedule. This was good for citizens, because even if the City never turns its fiber-optic cable into a commercial project, the possibility alone resulted in the citizens of Edmonds getting access to the benefits of fiber optics a dozen years sooner than we would have otherwise.
The City’s current plan is to test a few commercial installations and prove the concept has broader use than just the City’s own, internal connectivity. Each new installation will be financially viable on a case-by-case basis. As more commercial installations are implemented, the City will gain more experience and data, and thus more insight into how to implement and operate the system efficiently and as a positive-return investment.
But even if nothing further happens, the City will be able to reduce its own connectivity costs by about $100,000 per year. It cost approximately $500,000 to get the first use up and running, and with annual savings, the City will break even and have a positive cash return by 2014.
However, the main opportunity — and the point of the committee — is to figure out how to develop additional revenues for a net positive effect on the City’s finances, which could be substantial both now and for many years to come.
Remember, this was just my first meeting and there is much yet to learn. The committee is made up of some smart, impressive people who have contributed thousands of hours of their time at no cost to the city, and are preparing a complete review of the opportunity for presentation to the City Council on Aug. 24.
I suggested a number of questions and comments that I’ve heard from citizens, such as “We’ve spent $450,000, and it has all been for legal fees?” and “If we won the court case, why are we appealing?” The Committee has agreed that it’s important to answer these questions openly and in lay terms. I expect the presentation will be comprehensive and that it will help all of us become better informed about a significant project that has passed under the radar for the past several years. Don’t worry, all the money hasn’t been spent on legal fees.
CTAC meetings are held the first Tuesday of each month at City Hall. The public is invited to come watch and contribute. At the last meeting, we had more visitors than chairs, so we may need a bigger venue. But don’t let that stop you from attending if you’re interested. One day, we may be able to use our fiber-optic network to video conference citizens into our meetings. Trust me, that day will come.
“Citizen Harry” is Harry Gatjens, My Edmonds News own citizen reporter who writes about important issues facing Edmonds residents. Read his report on the 2010 Citizens Levy Committee here.