It’s time for Greensboro’s secret Internet plans to involve the public
Imagine if the City of Greensboro decided to take a lane of 45 MPH Wendover Avenue, give it to a private company and allow that company to charge people to drive 65 MPH on it. That would be an outlandish misappropriation of public infrastructure. Yet, that is a possibility for Greensboro’s publicly-owned fiber optic Internet cables.
The City of Greensboro owns over 150 miles of fiber optic Internet cables intertwined throughout the City’s neighborhoods that connect traffic lights, traffic cameras and 70 remote facilities such as fire stations and library branches. The City’s use of these cables for official purposes uses but a small fraction of their capacity.
The leftover unused capacity of that cable is referred to as dark fiber. It has the potential to be put to use for the public good or for private gain. One possible use is to allow it to be exploited for private profit, like the imagined toll lane on Wendover Avenue. Another option is to use it to provide city-operated no-fee public Internet service.
Efforts are underway to decide how to utilize Greensboro’s dark fiber, but they have been going on out of public view and without public discussion.
Greensboro has linked up with representatives from Guilford County, High Point and Burlington to form an initiative they are calling TriGig. According to its executive summary, this consortium “seeks to work with Internet service providers to make available access to a common pool of assets, services, and infrastructure to support the deployment of gigabit speed broadband throughout our community.”
The assets TriGig proposes making available include Greensboro’s dark fiber. TriGig recently issued a request for proposals seeking vendors to help exploit these public assets. Two companies responded. One remains unidentified, the other, North State Communications of High Point, was chosen as the preferred vendor.
Greensboro is already served by three Internet service providers, two of which offer gigabit Internet speeds—AT&T and North State. As the Triad Business Journal reported:
“North State already offers high-speed Internet access in the Triad but stands to profit as the TriGig vendor because the company will be able to expand its network and sell gigabit services to residents, schools and businesses.” (Dec 6, 2016)
The TriGig request for proposals was wide ranging, it proposed possibilities from letting for-profit Internet service providers ride along city infrastructure to providing public Wi-Fi in parks. Of concern for the residents of Greensboro is that decisions about how to use these public assets are being made with no public input and with no guidance from elected officials.
It is also not clear why Greensboro would put its assets under the direction of a group that includes other governments. Clearly, Greensboro’s needs, with three Internet service providers in town, differ from those of rural Guilford County. Yet, the TriGig consortium has placed limits on Greensboro’s options by decree.
In its request for proposals, the TriGig consortium declared that none of its participants intended to offer public Internet service. Why not? Why was that option excluded without the people of Greensboro having a say? Such a service may well be in the interest of the people of Greensboro— maybe that is exactly what the residents of Greensboro would like to see done with Greensboro’s dark fiber, if they were to be asked. Yet that decision has been made for them by representatives of other cities without citizen involvement or knowledge, either directly or through elected representatives.
Why should public assets be deployed, as North State proposes, in the service of a “market driven” pricing model? Other public assets such as libraries, streets and garbage trucks are deployed for the public good and intentionally are not market driven. Why should public Internet infrastructure be any different and why are the decisions being made without our consent?
It doesn’t help that an incurious City Council is once again taking a hands-off approach or that Greensboro city staff proactively try to keep TriGig’s activities secret.
I asked Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan about the apparent lack of City Council’s involvement in a plan that could put City assets into the hands of a private company for its profit. Specifically, I wondered if Council had allocated any money for the scheme; or had any discussions about ways to provide Internet access to under-served neighborhoods; or had discussed how best to use the city’s dark fiber. She replied that the project was being handled “at the staff level,” but that she would get back to me with answers to my specific questions. She never did.
Multiple requests for an interview with Doug Hanks, Greensboro’s representative on TriGig, were ignored and when I asked Greensboro for North State’s winning response to TriGig’s request for proposals, the request was denied. The City said the document was secret. It wasn’t until after I argued that the City had no legal grounds on which to withhold the document that the City relented.
A knee-jerk response of secrecy is typical of the current Greensboro administration. Time after time its first response is to conceal records, but for something like this—what to do with a public asset—there should be intentional transparency and a proactive effort to involve the public in the decision. This cannot proceed as business as usual, especially when the usual is secrecy.
Greensboro’s dark fiber and supporting infrastructure do not belong to City staff. They are not theirs to secretly appropriate. It is good that City staff have recognized the potential of the City’s underutilized infrastructure, but how to use it is something the community should have a say in. It is time for the City to let the people decide what to do with the City’s extra Internet capacity before it is committed to purposes to which we did not agree.
Roch Smith Jr. is the creator and curator of Greensboro 101. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.