City moves closer toward making broadband a utility service  

By Jim Wilkerson

On Monday, Nov. 1, the Ruston City Council took another step toward potentially developing broadband as a utility service offered by the City by entering into a professional contract agreement with Technology for Rural America, Inc. (TFRA).

“The City is hiring TFRA to provide professional insight into items ranging from residential broadband service to marketing and public relations aspects, and to help us understand the regulations that go along with creating a new utility in the State of Louisiana,” Public Works Manager Andrew Halbrook explained. “TFRA is essentially helping us put together the resources that are needed to create broadband utility services.”

The City of Ruston is already offering broadband services to roughly 300 commercial customers. In 2011, the City began constructing the initial broadband infrastructure. As it was being slowly built out, the City found that there was high demand for the service.

“We were the wholesalers, and there were retailers who sold it to customers,” Halbrook said. “The city gets a flat fee for every service level it has, while not holding any contracts with the customers.”

Then, in August 2020, the City started considering offering broadband as a utility to residential customers. “We hired an impartial, third-party consultant to come in and conduct a feasibility study to see if it was in our best interest to create broadband as a utility,” Halbrook recalled. “The feasibility study took 5 months to create and do all the research to conduct all the online and physical surveys.”

Apparently, many Ruston citizens were discontented with Suddenlink, who is the predominant internet service provider in the area. Halbrook noted, “The surveys told us that not many citizens were happy with the level of service they were getting from Suddenlink. Anywhere from 60 to 75 percent of broadband customers said they were willing to swap to an alternative service.”

Based on the feasibility study’s analysis, the City could expect to have 55 to 75 percent of current broadband users switch to the City’s broadband service.

When asked if the City considered other options, besides offering a broadband utility service of its own, Halbrook answered, “One of the other things we are considering is a public/private partnership. We have a significant amount of infrastructure now, and we could help leverage our fiber optic communications into a private industry.”

“We are not totally committed or focused on becoming a sole provider, but we want to maximize the assets we have in the infrastructure that is already in place,” he ended.

Before the City can move forward toward being a broadband utility provider, it has to pass a public referendum for Ruston citizens to vote on whether they would like the City to provide broadband as a utility, in accordance with the Fair Competition Act. A date for the referendum has not yet been set.

When asked how much the installation of the initial infrastructure cost the City, Andrew replied: “The installation of the initial fiber optic ring around the city was to improve the electrical utility, and, unfortunately, during this time poor records were kept in regards to the initial expenditures. No one really knows how much we’ve spent to date.”

Halbrook did clarify that records have been well organized over the last seven years and that the City can account for all expenses associated with telecommunication improvements during that timeframe. He did not have the dollar amount for total expenses readily available, however. 

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