RFQ approved by City Council for consultant to study municipal broadband

By: Jonathan Shead | Novi Note | Published September 23, 2021

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NOVI — After hearing a 15-minute presentation from the city’s municipal broadband committee Aug. 30, the City Council approved, in a 6-0 vote, to have city staff draft a request for qualifications and seek bids from consultants to study the city’s current broadband infrastructure and put together a recommended framework for the city to implement a municipal fiber optic broadband network in the future.

Council member Laurie Marie Casey was absent from the Aug. 30 meeting and vote.

“We want to get our hands around it before we start going out and talking about exactly what it is we can do as a community (and) exactly how we’re going to do it. There are a lot of options,” Mayor Pro Tem David Staudt, who also sits on the municipal broadband committee, said Aug. 30. “We have the great fortune of having a municipality directly next to us, Farmington and Farmington Hills, that have spent years studying this issue. They’ve gone out and created a voluminous amount of information, which was available to us.”

Despite everything they’ve learned through the committee’s initial findings, Staudt said there’s a desire to learn more.

“One of the things that we’re looking to do through this request for qualification is to do very similar to what we did with the nonmotorized master plan,” he said. “We discovered that one of the things that is really important to us is that we come out with a master plan that designated how we would work with businesses and individuals.”

Staudt said the consultant will be able to dig deeper into how a possible citywide broadband system, under a number of funding and operating options, might affect individual residents and homeowners, businesses, and new developments or zoning ordinances.

City of Novi Project Engineer Humna Anjum, who serves on the municipal broadband committee, said there are four models for building a city broadband network: city-owned with an open network; privately funded, but publicly facilitated; privately executed, but publicly funded; and a shared investment and risk model.

She explained during the committee’s presentation that the current Federal Communications Commission’s standards for broadband connection of 25 megabits per second download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds are “a low threshold and essentially dial-up speed compared to other nations globally.”

Resident feedback about the high cost of internet only to receive low speeds and unreliable service led committee member and career technologist Willy Mena to want to progress this issue further with an RFQ and a consultant.

“After sitting through (a) few sessions with experts in this field, and learning of the benefits that a fiber infrastructure could bring to our great city, and hearing about some of the great, creative ways other communities have been able to partner to finance such a project, it became abundantly clear to me that moving on to the next steps of this project would be the best course of action,” Mena said. “I think you’ll find that the residents of Novi, by and large, would be fully supportive of us at least looking at the possibility of making their online lives more reliable and productive.”

Fiber optic cables run up to 60 times faster than the copper cables used in today’s network, Anjum said, adding that the city currently has fiber laid in the ground that’s been used since the 1980s.

“You can increase capacity by upgrading the lasers on each end (of the cable) without having to lay new fiber. Also, fiber optic cables are resilient, reliable and have fewer points of failure than traditional copper networks,” she added.

Council member Andrew Mutch believes the pandemic highlighted “how critical having high-speed internet is to our community, both on the residential side and the business side,” he said Aug. 30. “We need it. Everybody needs it.”

Mutch supported the RFQ and taking the appropriate next steps.

“We’re paying too much and getting too little for it, and even upgrading, it’s still relative to what we should be getting these days,” Mutch said. “We’re years behind, and I think a lot of that is driven by competitiveness, or a lack of competition maybe. We’re not really going to get a handle on this until we take this next step and get some more information.”

It could take up to six months following the council’s selection of a consultant “to get any real results back,” Staudt said. The municipal broadband committee will continue to work alongside the consultant during that time.

City Manager Pete Auger said he suspects the council will have a chance to select a consultant in a few months, after the city receives bids and the committee interviews the applicants. Once a consultant has been selected, Staudt said it’ll cost the city between $30,000 and $60,000 for the initial study.

“From there, we’d be able to make a much greater determination of what we want, how far we want to go with it, how in-depth it’s going to be. It’s not a super project, in terms of dollars, but it’s something that will really get us going in the right direction,” he said.

Mayor Bob Gatt believes the city is ready to take the next step, but he’s still unsure about the final outcomes.

“It’s something that I think the city of Novi is prepared to explore. Certainly no promises; it depends a lot on what’s out there, and how much everything is going to cost,” he said.

For more information, visit cityofnovi.org.