(photo credit: H Sterling Cross)
California Forward has kept an ear to the ground on Los Angeles City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield’s proposal for free citywide Wi-Fi ever since he introduced it last August. While some looked skeptically at the proposal when it was initially introduced, the speed with which the proposal has made its way through the City Council reveals this isn’t just a pipe dream.
The proposal is moving further away from fantasy and closer to reality every week, which is why we sat down with the Councilmember for his take on where things stand now and what needs to happen before citizens of Los Angeles will be able to log-on to the Internet for free.
First can you give us a quick update on where the Los Angeles Community Broadband Network (LACBN) is at in the process?
We just released the RFI which is the Request for Information. We decided to do it that way instead of straight to Request for Proposal because we were getting a lot of feedback asking questions and wanting to help shape what the RFP looked like. We thought it made sense for something as big and as transformative as this. This would allow us to get everyone a chance to weigh in and ask questions and engage them. At the end of the day, it’s important that we get good people applying and companies with serious offers. We’re going to do this for one month to do questions, the RFI is 3 months, and then the RFP in 6 months.
Can you talk a little about why it’s important to get information and perspective from businesses and residents in addition to bidders and experts?
Folks can really outline what their needs are. The whole point of this is to improve the quality of life for Angelinos and to make LA more competitive. We want to hear from residents and businesses, what do they want out of this? What do they need out of this? What would be good for them? What access to speed do businesses need to stay in Los Angeles? What would make their life better? What are people willing to pay for that?
The GM of the City’s information technology agency says 1/3 of the city’s residents don’t have access to Internet – what impact does this have on the economy?
It’s debilitating. It’s debilitating to have residents and businesses not have access. At the end of the day, we’re going to be left behind as a city if we don’t remedy that. If we get out in front of it, we will be a premier city that will thrive and grow in unimaginable ways.
At what point did the Internet go from luxury good to mandatory part of a 21st century life?
I think we’re clearly there — it’s an interesting question. When it became commercialized in ‘95 or the early ‘90s, but I think it’s not a straight line process. It’s a necessity that is growing by an exponential amount each year. If I have to pick a year, I’d say 2008. Certainly in 2014, it is clearly a necessity. It becomes even more so not just for living your basic life and having a business but for education as well. The other aspect is it’s not just about having some connectivity, but having the right speeds. Just like you need roads that get you from A to B, at some point your commerce will require highways that can move goods and services. Our virtual infrastructure is as important as our physical infrastructure. From a city’s perspective, we need to think of both as critical infrastructure for making cities, communities, and states.
One question in the LACBN survey asks people about who should pay fees for the Internet – my impression was that originally this was a “free” proposal, what’s the status of that now?
It was never that everything would be free; we want to have a free component. The high speed fiber to every home and business was never envisioned as the free component. That’s more about access. As a city, we don’t have the money. Putting together a holistic proposal where everyone has access to basic free service where you can access services and email is the free component. That’s part of where the value proposition comes it for private sector partners. We’re asking them to provide something for free but in exchange can use that network for a reasonable profit. We’re trying to kick start that build out. We’ve already waited too long. We’re losing business. We’re losing quality of life. We’re losing all the advantages that come with that. It impacts everything, even traffic.
How would the city pay for the construction of the LACBN?
Public private partnership. It’s not the city paying for it outright. It’s getting private companies to invest in it. As a city, we have $1 billion in assets that we’re willing to add to the equation. Those assets are not
general fund dollars. It’s like access to our power grid, permitting, and our street poles. We’re willing to — as part of an inducement to get a partner on this — we’re willing to throw that stuff out there. If we build in long term contracts, we’re guaranteeing some income streams.
Why is the Internet service in Los Angeles inferior?
The market on its own hasn’t provided. We end up paying more for less out here. Even in some 3rd world countries you have better access than here in LA. There obviously hasn’t been the incentive to do it. Part of that is we have allowed it. We take what we can get. But part of it is sometimes it requires a little bit of government intervention to make something happen, just like our roads and bridges weren’t built overnight or without some leadership from the government. You look at some of the other cities that have tried this; they’re specks of dust compared to LA. Hopefully the leadership LA shows will encourage other cities.
What are the preliminary responses like to this idea from your constituents and other Los Angelinos.?
99 percent positive. Everyone is, really. The devil’s in the details, but at the moment it’s been mostly positive. When I talk to a group, you start with skepticism sometimes, but when you convey the vision of what we’re talking about, people see it. When we step back and say we’re getting a lot more than we’re giving. Some people fear this coming at the expense of other infrastructure, but we can chew gum and walk at the same time. This isn’t going to slow anything down. There are some symbiotic aspects to the LACBN that will create efficiencies on both sides. In the next couple years when we start tearing our streets for Save Our Streets, it makes sense to be doing fiber at the same time. When you have higher speed access, you have less need for travel. That mobility and freedom can mean a lot.
This is a monumental effort; it’s a major initiative that we’re pushing. The RFI is a very nice milestone, but there’s still a lot of work to do. The main message is if anyone has ideas and thoughts please provide them. If there are folks reading about this, this is the time to shape the final proposal.