As a Public Utility, Very-High-Speed Internet Service Coming to Lancaster City This Year

This post in a nutshell: Internet service 50 times faster than Comcast’s basic service is coming to Lancaster city starting later this year. It will be cheaper than Comcast, too, because it will be offered through the city as a public utility.

In my post last August, I argued strongly that Lancaster’s mayor, Rick Gray, was wrong to publicly endorse the proposed merger of Comcast with Time Warner. I went on record with that criticism in LNP and started a petition calling for city council to oppose the merger.  (As an update, Comcast just yesterday said they feel “optimistic” that federal regulators will allow the merger.)

In the public reaction to the mayor’s public support of Comcast, I was just one voice among many calling on Lancaster city not only to stop catering to Comcast but in fact to compete with Comcast by offering very-high-speed Internet service to Lancaster city residents as a public utility.

As reported by LNP’s Dan Nephin today, Lancaster city is going to step up and do just that. What’s more, it turns out that these plans and negotiations have been in the works for years, behind closed doors until Verizon decided if it would block such plans. (The city administrator, Patrick Hopkins, tells me in a Facebook comment that the work began in 2006.) Verizon has decided it will not.

So, while I was joining others in calling for public broadband in Lancaster, city leaders had already had something big in the works for years. They just couldn’t say anything about it publicly.

I’m writing this from my home, where we subscribe to Comcast’s most basic Internet service. Comcast’s own tool reports that my download speed is 3.6 megabits per second (Mbps).

The capacity of the public Internet service to be offered within Lancaster city later this year is planned to be 300 Mbps, thanks to new infrastructure of roughly “a thousand strand miles” of fiber-optic cable.

Free WiFi hotspots will be set up in parks and other public areas all over the city, and residents and businesses will be able to subscribe to the service. Prices haven’t been set yet, but Nephin reports Gray saying the city is “very confident that it’s going to be a lot lower than what you’re paying now for home Internet service.” At the very least, as residents, we’ll be able to get a lot more speed for our dollar.

This plan looks to be a huge win for the city’s budget. The installation of fiber-optic cable and transmitters will cost around $500,000 over the next twenty years. The city will save at least half that amount in the first year alone, because it will no longer have to pay a third party for Internet service and because it will allow remote monitoring of water meters throughout the city.

Verizon Opted Out

The reason Lancaster city is allowed under Pennsylvania law to roll out this Internet service is that Verizon chose to give up its state-guaranteed right of first refusal on creating such a network in the city. (Verizon’s lobbying of the state government earlier this century led the state government to sell out and guarantee Verizon it could have “dibs” on creating this kind of network anywhere in the state where it is the primary telecom provider.) Verizon just informed the city of its decision in a letter on February 12.

City leadership was staying mum on this subject until hearing that final decision from Verizon, so it turns out these plans were in the works even as Mayor Gray was coming under criticism for his support of Comcast last year. In my view, rolling out this plan is of much greater significance than signing a letter supporting Comcast’s merger — it’s a good act far outweighing a lapse in judgment.

A Great Thing for Lancaster

This plan is terrific for Lancaster city, its residents, and its businesses. I’m confident that people and businesses will move to Lancaster city simply for the really fast, affordable Internet connection. The service will save our city money that it desperately needs in order to maintain infrastructure and provide necessary public services. Businesses in the city will save money, too, while also increasing their capacity and productivity with a faster Internet connection.

And hey, in the near future, if a pipe bursts in my house while I’m out of town, the city may even catch it, because they’ll be monitoring for abnormalities in daily water meter readings.

Huge thanks and congratulations on this forward-thinking initiative go to Mayor Gray, city council, Patrick Hopkins, Charlotte Katzenmoyer, and others involved.