Louisville is the home of the Kentucky Derby and the University of Louisville, but in the not-so-distant future, it might also be home to a super-fast Internet connection.
As was the case with many other cities, it was the Google Fiber selection process that initially raised Louisville’s interest in gigabit speeds. So, in 2013, when Chief Innovation Officer Ted Smith listened to Gig.U Executive Director Blair Levin discuss the economics of fiber deployment at the Project on Municipal Innovation Conference, his attention was captured. Smith followed up with Levin the next week and got a model RFI for the city.
Less than a year after that day, Louisville has already transitioned from interest to action. After a successful RFI/RFP process, the Metro Council in July approved three new 20-year franchise agreements for fiber network buildout — one with Louisville-based BGN Networks, one with London-based SiFi and another with New York-based FiberTech.
Visualizing and Aggregating Community Demand
Though Louisville’s future network will not be supported with public funds (in contrast to projects in Wilson, North Carolina or Lafayette, Louisiana, for example), initial momentum certainly came from the bottom up. Demand for faster speeds was fostered and articulated by the city’s residents, academics and the business community.
“Something like this can’t be anyone’s pet project,” Smith says. “There has to be a vocal group in the community.”
To translate those voices into something tangible, local advocates launched Louisville Fiber — a web-based tool that asked residents who wanted a gigabit fiber network to input their address. The resulting heat map was informative for policymakers and also visualized demand for prospective vendors. Now that Louisville has already attracted and approved specific vendors, the website has transitioned from an organizing platform to an informational platform. The homepage features links to the SiFi, BGN and FiberTech websites, along with project updates and basic facts about fiber infrastructure.
Embracing the RFI as a Learning Process
The city government released its RFI in November of 2013 and received six responses. What followed was a series of regulatory course corrections that would help make the economics of investing in Louisville work.
“The private sector feedback from the RFI helped us survey our existing regulatory process to see what was working and what wasn’t — providing access to rights of way, permitting, bonding … ” explains Smith. “If people want to lay fiber, they need to know the cost of doing business in that market.”
The RFI pushed Louisville to confront its fiber-readiness. They made adjustments to attract vendors, such as increasing the proposed franchise period from 15 to 20 years and reducing the bonding requirement.
The city’s open attitude and willingness to work with new vendors and multiple vendors at once also contributed to its later success. Louisville didn’t wait for a single upgrader like Google Fiber or AT&T to come knocking. They also didn’t rework city regulations and conditions to accommodate any one specific potential partner. Instead, Louisville made general, business-friendly, fiber-friendly policy changes and then allowed the companies to come to them.
The Local Governance Challenge of Fiber Projects
Of course, a vocal, supportive group in a city needs a government champion to represent its interests. The problem? In most local government structures, it is no one’s job to specifically secure better, cheaper, faster broadband. Though CTOs and CIOs have sometimes been proactive and taken these projects on, they are not required to do so. Champions are often champions because they chose to step out of their job description and make this issue their problem.
This preliminary, structural obstacle is one that likely prevents the topic of next-generation, competitive speeds from even being raised in the first place. On top of that, fiber infrastructure is often dismissed as outside the purview of the public sector.
“But there is something new about this issue and new about the way government works in it,” Smith observes. “Attitudes are shifting now that mayors are being asked about it with microphones in their face …”
Facing the Reality That Cities Compete
Cities compete to recruit talent, retain talent, attract businesses, fuel startups and provide better, more efficient government services. That was not far from Ted Smith’s mind as Louisville pursued its first steps in seeking a fiber upgrade.
“Telecommunications is absolutely part of public infrastructure,” Smith emphasizes. “Whatever energy your city puts into water, sewage and electricity, you have to have a similar dedication. You have to remain competitive.” Further, he had the full faith and support of his boss Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer who drives that 21st-century infrastructure vision.
Chattanooga — perhaps one of the most widely cited gigabit fiber success stories in the country — is just about a five-hour car ride south of Louisville. Charlotte and Atlanta are both nearby and have been tapped by Google and AT&T for potential gigabit upgrades. Huntsville, Alabama hired a consultant to explore the feasibility of a citywide network. As more southeastern cities pursue and secure faster Internet speeds, others will likely follow. In the case of Louisville, the city took ownership over the issue before inaction became a competitive disadvantage.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Denise Linn is an Ash Center summer fellow in innovation with the Gig.U project and is a master in public policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.