Whether it’s a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” or an unfair advantage for one telecom business, Farmington and Farmington Hills council members on Wednesday agreed to continue negotiations with a firm offering to build–and pay for–a $100 million broadband network across both cities.
To Farmington area cable customers, SiFi Networks’ plan to lay 680 miles of fiber, largely in grassy rights-of-way, may look like a dream come true. Residents in both cities have complained for years about the lack of competition.
Spectrum (previously BrightHouse and Time Warner) serves most neighborhoods, while some have an option with WOW. Dissatisfaction with those services led to formation of a broadband committee and, in 2018, the Joint Municipal Broadband Taskforce.
‘Smart city’ approach
During an electronic meeting, company president Scott Bradshaw said SiFi is a developer, not a service provider.
“We’re looking for communities where we can have a significant economic impact,” he said. “Our offering is that we, on our dime, would like to build a 680-mile fiber optic infrastructure. We’ll build it. We’ll take the risk.”
The company takes a “smart city” approach, with a neutral platform, Bradshaw said. SiFi builds the infrastructure, then collects an access fee from internet service providers, other tech companies, and municipalities.
If Farmington and/or Farmington Hills opt for the technology, they could use data to manage parking, gas and water service, public safety response, smart street lights, and more. Rockford, Illinois now measures ground temperature, Bradshaw said. When the salt trucks roll, they head to the coldest part of the city first.
“It’s the same tax dollars,” he added, “just being used in a more efficient way.”
METRO Act permit
SiFi has worked with city staff and attorneys to negotiate terms and conditions of a permit required under Michigan’s METRO (Metropolitan Extension Telecommunication Rights-of-Way Oversight) Act. The 2002 law shifted control over negotiating rights-of-way from municipalities in favor of the state-issued permit.
Farmington mayor pro tem Joe LaRussa asked that terms include a completion guarantee, without a specific time frame. Bradshaw said SiFi typically completes projects in less than two years.
Farmington Hills council member Valerie Knol asked about a newspaper article that referred to negative experiences in cold weather cities. Bradshaw said the report was incorrect and included information not related to SiFi. He said he would provide references to address the misinformation.
Knol’s colleague Matthew Strickfaden asked whether the special terms in the permit would also obligate the city with other providers. Attorney Steve Joppich said staff would consider requests on a case-by-case basis.
After some tough questions, council members unanimously supported continued negotiations, hailing the project as a unique opportunity.
Even playing field?
During public comment, Michigan Cable Telecommunications Association (MCTA) executive director Matt Groen argued that Farmington area residents already have 100 percent access to gigabit speeds. While the industry welcomes competition, he said, “it must take place on an even playing field. It is inappropriate to provide special access to one provider.”
Barnett invited Groen to meet with her. She pointed out that MCTA members have equal access to METRO Act permits.
Farmington Hills resident Aaron Paluzzi, who chairs the Broadband Task Force, said while providers may offer gigabit speeds, they don’t deliver to half of homes. He said the coaxial cable/fiber network offers slower speeds at certain times of day.
“We’re looking into the solutions we have for the last five years because you and your groups do not deliver as promised,” he said. “You’re not being locked out. We’re putting everyone on a level playing field.”
Watch the discussion: