July 14, 2024


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$7M Tucson internet network connects just 1,000 homes | Government & Politics

M Tucson internet network connects just 1,000 homes | Government & Politics

Tucson spent nearly $7 million during the pandemic to create its own internet network that was used by fewer than 1,000 households, something officials called an “embarrassment” that might continue to be a drain on taxpayer dollars.

The Community Wireless Program used federal relief funds to create a broadband system similar to those operated by Cox or Comcast. The goal was to provide free internet for low-income residents so they could attend school and work when COVID-19 shutdowns began in 2020.

But only 995 households — which accounted for less than a fifth of the internet routers purchased by the city — actually participated in the program, meaning Tucson spent cash at a rate of nearly $7,000 for each family served by the initiative. That’s more than six times the typical yearly cost for internet service in the area.

The city could have funded eight years of free internet for the 5,000 homes targeted under its plan through an alternative option, which would have cost $2 million less than it sunk into the unsuccessful Community Wireless Program.

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Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik.

“I think we blew it when we invested several million dollars and connected 1,000 homes. That’s indefensible,” Councilman Steve Kozachik said. “It’s certainly not something that any of us in the city should be proud of. Any of us.”

Tucson’s strategy didn’t entirely jibe with its goals from the onset. The city didn’t want to become an internet provider indefinitely, yet officials bought equipment — like network towers, routers and interior cabling — that will last “forever” and cost local taxpayers about $300,000 to maintain each year.

It also took the city six months to begin accepting applications for the program and about a year to build the network, raising questions about why it was initially viewed as a “quick” solution by many officials.

“This wireless project was really just meant to be a quick temporary solution to keep people in school during that time immediately when the pandemic started,” Councilwoman Nikki Lee said about the program.

Other strategies, like partnering with private internet companies, were also available. It would have cost about 12 times less to get each of the target households online, required no long-term maintenance and secured internet access for needy residents “immediately.”

That approach was successfully used by other local governments and school districts while Tucson kept pouring money into its new network, failing to change course when it became clear the program wasn’t effective.

But council members said they didn’t get that chance. They contend that the information needed to “pivot” toward better solutions was never made available to them, despite requesting it multiple times.

“I never received the actual data I was looking for to be able to filter through and get an educated understanding of the true utilization of the network, which I needed to inform my own actions,” said Lee, who said she became “frustrated” when her requests for information were consistently ignored.

City Manager Michael Ortega said the data was “difficult to gather” and added that the city “did not do as well as we could have.”

Tucson city manager Michael Ortega.

Colin Boyce, the former head of Tucson’s IT department who oversaw the project, declined the comment on the program and resigned just days before the Star obtained program data.

The question of what to do with the pricey infrastructure still remains, however, and Ortega said it will be at least three months until officials identify a viable solution.

He hopes it could aid future broadband efforts, though it’s unclear why residents would need the city-run service at this point: a new “longer-term” federal program has dedicated billions to subsidizing private internet plans for low-income families across the country.

The city is also working with Pima County to find a solution, and leasing the system to private companies could still be an option if worse comes to worst. But until those decisions are made, residents will just have to keep footing the bill.

“Part of the plan has always been to analyze and make sure that the ongoing costs make sense,” Ortega said. “That is something that is ongoing and I’ll have more information probably in the next three months to really dissect that investment going forward.”

Digital divide

Tucson launched the Community Wireless Program in May 2020, only a couple of months after COVID-19 shutdowns began. Residents were still learning the basics of working and learning online, and local organizations were figuring out how to operate without in-person meetings.

City Councilwoman Nikki Lee

The impact of the “digital divide” — a gap in tech resources that runs along socioeconomic lines — became glaringly obvious at that point, when kids from poorer parts of the city struggled to get online for school.

“There was a huge concern that these families, these kids, would start to fall behind academically and financially if they couldn’t work (online),” Lee said. “We heard instances of families having to sit in McDonald’s parking lots to use their free Wi-Fi and realized that we had to do something in the immediate time frame to alleviate that situation.”

Tucson had received millions in federal relief funds as part of the CARES Act, so officials just had to choose how they wanted to tackle the issue: fund internet plans through a private company or provide services directly with a new city-owned network.

Low-price plans through Cox would have cost about $120 for each household and been available right away because the company’s network was already established. But internet speeds on those plans were “very slow,” according to city officials who said it wasn’t sufficient for online schooling.

“One of the focal points early on from the council was making sure that we provide the service not only in an affordable way but also at a high-speed rate,” Ortega said. “The actual access speeds for downloading (on Cox’s plan), we had gotten complaints that they were very slow.”

Building a city-owned network, on the other hand, would secure free high-speed internet for residents as long as they needed it — and the city went all-in on that option.

Council members first invested $750,000 in the network and then kept spending money on it over the next seven months. By the end of 2020, they had shelled out more than $5.5 million.

During that spending spree local school districts were creating their own initiatives. The Sunnyside District partnered with Raytheon and Cox to provide free internet for hundreds of students in fall of 2020, for example, and Tucson lost its biggest target demographic — students — in the blink of an eye.

“When we started the program we made some assumptions about the number of users, not factoring in at the time that the school districts also had similar programs that took a lot of the users who were able to use the school’s infrastructure as opposed to the city’s,” Ortega said. “It gave the user an opportunity to choose. They chose the schools.”

Applications for the Community Wireless Program opened on Dec. 9, 2020, about a month after Sunnyside’s initiative was announced and just nine days before the federal government launched a similar effort called Emergency Broadband Benefits.

EBB provided big discounts on private internet plans and represented yet another program that rendered Tucson’s network virtually useless, but city officials persisted.

They believed the funding for those outside initiatives would dry up relatively quickly and that the city’s network would then become the next best option for those in need of free broadband.

“(School districts) got federal money and we got some federal money, but at some point the expectation was that money would go away and then they would come have a conversation with us,” Ortega said.

That never happened. Sunnyside instead formed a partnership with Pima County and Cox in the spring of 2021, which secured internet for 1,000 students in the Summit View neighborhood — an area with particularly low broadband access — without the city’s involvement.

Around that time it became clear that Tucson’s program was in trouble. The city had bought 5,000 routers for qualifying homes, but just 628 had been distributed and only about 800 households had even applied, according to a city memo from April 2021.

Staffers suggested at the time that the reason there had been “such few applicants” was because residents weren’t aware of the program, so they planned future outreach efforts to turn things around.

“We are confident with the next round of outreach working through community-based organizations and nonprofits, we can build awareness regarding the program and reach more of those in need,” the April memo read.

That was the last time the Community Wireless Program was ever discussed at a council meeting. Only 367 more households would end up participating in the program, meaning a total of just 995 homes were served by Tucson’s multimillion-dollar network.

“To have connected fewer than 1,000 homes with (millions of dollars) — it’s horrible,” Kozachik said about the outcome. “It’s a terrible effort.”

Connection issues

Many who did participate in the program signed on before the city’s network went live in mid-2021. Their routers were still able to access the internet using AT&T, a practice called “roaming” that allows a device to connect to nearby networks when others aren’t available.

For example, a Verizon phone might use roaming mode to connect with T-Mobile’s network in an area where Verizon has no coverage.

It was expected that the city’s routers would depend on roaming at first — that was always part of the plan. Installing 70-foot-poles and cables all around the city takes time, and that construction had to happen before the public network could become available.

Most of those routers stayed in roaming mode well after the city’s network was supposed to be finished, however, suggesting the system has been offline more often than not.

“We have a lot of folks who have that device set in roaming mode on other networks because for whatever reason — and again, I don’t know the technical side of why — but they’re not able to connect to the city’s network,” Lee said. “Why are we not able to connect to the city’s network?”

Construction issues were the main culprit. Tucson installed its broadband infrastructure and developed a network that covered a third of the city in less than a year, and staffers said the rapid installation meant some of it wasn’t done correctly.

In one instance, for example, a network pole was struck by lightning and went offline because it wasn’t properly grounded.

City data suggests this has been a massive problem over the past six months. Of the 604 city routers that were used during that time, less than a third connected directly to Tucson’s broadband network.

The other 423 — 70% of the city routers that went online in the past six months — weren’t able to access city broadband, so they connected to other networks instead.

“What were we sold? Did it work? Is it working as designed, and if not, what course of action do we have on behalf of the taxpayers?” Lee asked. “I don’t know if it has worked as designed or is working as designed (now), but I can’t get these answers.”

Left in the dark

Lee requested network information from city staff throughout the program, but said it “never happened.” She has worked in technology fields for two decades and said other council members were “really relying on my expertise to help understand what we needed to do.”

City staff couldn’t provide key information on the program, including data that showed how well the network was working and how many people were actually using it.

“I was really trying to get a sense of how many people in Tucson still need access to this type of system and to what extent (they needed that access). Those were really the only two things I was trying to understand,” Lee said. “It never happened.”

City staffers said the type of network Tucson used, called Citizens Broadband Radio Service, or CBRS, is a relatively new technology and that it was difficult to gather the basic information Lee wanted at the time. The same data was provided to the Daily Star last month in response to a public records request.

“I just know that it was difficult to gather,” Ortega said about the issue. “We did not do as well as we could have, and should have, in addressing questions that were posed by the council member.”

The problem is that without the program data, council members couldn’t have made an informed decision about whether the city had to change strategies — even after Cox “upped their game” and started offering high-speed internet packages for cheap.

Interviews with multiple council members suggest they were open to that idea and even preferred it in some cases, so a strategy change may have happened if they had all the information.

“When (Cox) started making offers, the strength of their signal was inferior to what we were offering, but then they upped their game without upping the price,” Kozachik explained. “I’ve said this to our city manager and our city attorney, is this really an area that we ought to be investing significant dollars to get in the game? Do we really need to run an internet network as the city of Tucson?”

The city could have funded a year of free Cox internet for 41,000 homes with about $5 million, or provided nearly a decade of internet for the 5,000 households it hoped to serve under the Community Wireless Program.

Instead, at least another $1 million — as well as an extra $200,000 from Tucson’s general fund — was injected into the city-run network between early 2021 and today, bringing the total program cost to around $7 million.

Ortega said he did speak with private internet companies after the program was already “well on its way.” He added that it wasn’t too late to change course at that point and that it “could have been a conversation (he) had during that time.”

“I asked some of the providers if there was an opportunity and I know they worked on that. I do not know any of the specifics, to be honest with you,” he said. “There was some discussion about that, but I don’t know the outcome.”

A possible change in the program’s direction was never brought to the council publicly. It’s unclear when exactly Ortega’s discussions took place and how much money the city could have recovered if it “pivoted” to another broadband strategy at that time.

Yearly costs

Now, two years after the Community Wireless Program began, the city has a broadband network that will cost $300,000 to maintain each year and no solid plan for how to use it.

Tucson doesn’t have an IT director to pick up the pieces, either. Boyce, who formerly held that position and also served as project manager for the Community Wireless Program, resigned April 1, only four days before the city shared program data with the Daily Star.

Boyce had been earning an annual salary of $180,000 in the director’s role since he was appointed in May 2019. He declined to comment on the program and said he resigned for personal reasons during a brief phone call with the Star.

As for the city’s network, Ortega is “still very confident” that Tucson might use it to provide internet access for local students in the future. He maintains that the city-owned system will get more users when federal funding ends for other programs.

“My expectation is that when the external dollars to the school districts and the private sector start to either go away or be used for other things, people will still have that need,” he said. “We’ll be available and ready to provide that service as needed.”

Those dollars aren’t going away any time soon, though. The feds doubled-down on their broadband efforts last November with the Affordable Connectivity Program, a $14.2 billion “longer-term” initiative that will allow poor families to get cheap internet services for the foreseeable future.

Officials couldn’t have known that those federal benefits would be extended when the city began its initiative two years ago, but ”the landscape has changed” and it’s hard to see how Tucson’s network could make a significant impact on closing the digital divide at this point.

“When we first started down this path (those programs) didn’t exist,” the city manager said. “I think it’s important to look at that and recognize that the decisions were made based on the snapshot in time.”

One positive development is that Tucson began formally working with Pima County to come up with a solution a few months ago. City staff have teamed up with the county’s Strategic Planning Taskforce for Digital Access, a group that’s trying to “get everybody in the county equitable access to the internet.”

Michelle Simon, a member of the county’s task force, said Tucson’s broadband infrastructure could still play an “invaluable” role in the regional effort.

“This is going to provide us a bridge to get people their own internet access in the future,” said Simon, who is also the deputy director of support services for the county’s public library. “We can make sure that they have devices, they have the understanding of how to use those devices and then that they use programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program to subsidize their own internet access plan.”

Simon added that Tucson’s network is now “ready to go and can be implemented easily” in places where some homes don’t have internet. The idea is that those households can get on the city’s system while they’re waiting to be enrolled in federal subsidy programs.

It isn’t clear if using Tucson’s network as a placeholder for other programs will create enough value to justify the ongoing maintenance expenses for the city, however.

Ortega also mentioned using the network to reach unincorporated areas of Pima County where private internet services might not be available, though he couldn’t point to any specific neighborhoods that could benefit from the effort.

‘I see other opportunities (the task force) will develop as a part of the partnership – meaning our staff and their staff,” he added. When asked again to specify what “other opportunities” he saw, Ortega went on to say, “I just don’t know, to be honest with you. Those meetings have gone on for a couple of months now, and I don’t know that I can’t point to one and say ‘here’s where we’re headed.’”

Another potential option is to use the network for “smart cities” initiatives, which can involve installing things like gunshot detectors and other high-tech infrastructure throughout the city.

It had been one of the Community Wireless Program’s selling points because the public network would save costs if Tucson wanted to implement smart city systems down the line, a benefit that featured heavily in city staff’s early project pitches and memos.

Multiple city officials said it wasn’t a main goal of the program, however, and it would also require another significant investment in high-tech equipment such as air quality sensors and traffic light systems that can use real-time driver data.

“The logic is that if we had this (broadband) infrastructure there might be some cost savings there if it’s already available and the city has it up and running,” Lee explained about the smart cities connection. “To me, that was not part of the initial vision of the motion of moving forward with internet connectivity.”

Tucson could also just cut its losses and lease the network to a private provider, though city officials couldn’t explain why a company would want the system given that many local providers already have existing infrastructure throughout the area.

But if officials can find a buyer, it could eliminate the $300,000 maintenance costs local taxpayers are now stuck with. It’s also possible that Tucson could work out a deal with a private company to provide free or low-cost plans for certain families in exchange for using the city’s infrastructure.

“It isn’t just a matter of unplugging it and saying, ‘well, we’re done,’” Ortega explained. “It’s a function of making sure we look at how we can continue to partner with Pima County and, now that the landscape has changed, how we can continue looking for ways to leverage that equipment in our relationships with other providers and agencies.”

City officials expect to have a more specific plan for the network in about three months. In the meantime, they’ve planned to put another $3.2 million from the American Rescue Plan Act — a more recent tranche of federal relief money that’s separate from the CARES Act — into “digital literacy and access” programs.

Those future initiatives may share similar goals with the city’s earlier broadband effort, though the specifics haven’t been fleshed out. Council members are expected to review that planned allocation in the coming weeks given how poorly the Community Wireless Program performed.

“We have a planned $3.2 million investment in digital literacy and access. We need to have a conversation about where that’s going. Our first attempt at that did not generate a tremendous return on investment,” Kozachik said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “Before we just go and allocate those dollars out to whoever is going to get them, we should have that conversation.”

Reporter Sam Kmack covers local government. Contact him at [email protected].