Syracuse to pilot municipal broadband with ARPA funds

Syracuse to pilot municipal broadband with ARPA funds

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  • September 7, 2022
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06 September 2022

by Sarah Wray

Syracuse, NY is requesting proposals for the design, implementation and maintenance of a municipal broadband network.

The pilot programme, which will be paid for through American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, aims to help bridge the digital divide by providing affordable internet for low-income residents, while also supporting smart city applications.

Syracuse has a poverty rate of over 31 percent. Over a quarter of households lack internet access and nearly 45 percent lack access to internet speeds needed to support multiple users.

“We are a city that struggles with generational poverty,” Jennifer Tifft, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the City of Syracuse, told Cities Today. “When we started looking at the data, we found a lot of things that were correlated to poverty on a block level and one of those things was internet access.”

The pilot network should offer speeds of at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps) and will target households in census tracts with the lowest rates of internet access.

“Initially, I was thinking about this from an economic development perspective,” said Tifft. “When the pandemic hit, we started to really think about it a lot more seriously.”

She added that such an undertaking wouldn’t have been feasible without funding like ARPA as the city doesn’t own a lot of infrastructure such as conduit.

“I think like many communities, historically we viewed broadband as a private sector service,” Tifft commented. “A lot has obviously changed in the last few years and caused us to reassess our perspective on that.”

Models

Syracuse received US$123 million overall in ARPA funding and the amount that will be allocated to the broadband pilot will depend on proposals received. The city will look to expand community broadband in the future with additional federal and state funding, and part of the RFP requirement is for a scalable solution with a sustainable financial model.

The city will consider a model where it owns the infrastructure or shares ownership with a partner.

Tifft said the RFP takes a problem-based, technology-agnostic approach.

“We’re anxious to see what sort of solutions are proposed,” she said. These could include 5G, Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) or other types of technologies and combinations.

Internet services are available throughout Syracuse and some private providers have established low-cost offers, but uptake of these cheaper plans remains relatively low, according to the RFP.

Affordability is still an issue for some residents and lower priced services can lack adequate speed, Tifft said. In addition, residents may have previous arrears with internet companies or lack a bank account, which can also pose barriers.

Federal schemes such as the Affordable Connectivity Program aim to help close the digital divide but Tifft says city initiatives also remain crucial.

“It’s going to take a myriad of solutions to really address something as pervasive and multifaceted as the digital divide,” she said.

Trust

Syracuse Council recently authorised US$430,000 in ARPA funds to support a Digital Empowerment Program to improve digital literacy, including deploying Digital Navigators to support residents directly.

The municipal broadband network should serve a minimum of 2,500 households within 18 months of installation, which could take several years.

Tifft and her team are working closely with the Office of Accountability, Performance and Innovation to establish an outcome-based analysis of the pilot’s effectiveness.

There will also be a resident engagement push to ensure people are aware of the municipal service and to build trust.

“We need to make people comfortable with the idea of subscribing to a service that’s funded by government,” said Tifft. “I know from talking with peers in other communities that have tried to do similar things, there’s often a little bit of a reluctance and uncertainty.”

Once it’s in place, the network could also be used for city purposes such as connecting locations that lack fibre and supporting sensor deployments.

“This dovetails with a lot of other ambitions that we have around smart cities,” said Tifft. “The great thing about some of the infrastructure for networks like this is that it can be leveraged for multiple purposes.”

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