Report: Federal data blurs truth about local internet access

August 24, 2018
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As Rochester waits to see if it can attract a new cable and internet provider, a nonprofit advocacy group released a report citing a lack of broadband competition in and around the city.

Institute for Local Self-Reliance released a 16-page report Wednesday critical of federal statistics on the issue, stating they can lead to confusion regarding competition.

Competition in the market was a topic of discussion in 2017 when the Rochester City Council discussed and eventually rejected the potential for creating a city-owned internet service, following a 2016 study that put a $53 million price tag on the service, with an increase to $67 million if the city borrowed funds to cover costs.

At the time, Council President Randy Staver cited documentation showing 27 providers offered some form of service in the city.

While he hadn’t seen the Institute for Local Self-Reliance report, Staver said Wednesday that all providers aren’t created equal and many on the list would have limits to service.

“You have to take everything with a grain of salt,” he said, noting some reports are influenced by marketing efforts.

Council Member Michael Wojcik said he feels Wednesday’s report supports what many local residents already know.

“I think the people of Rochester are smart enough to know that Rochester lacks broadband competition despite what misleading information might come from elected officials or trade groups,” he said.

Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which has participated in discussions regarding the potential for a city-owned internet provider in Rochester, states in its report that federal data needed to be tweaked to provide what it sees as a realistic picture of broadband service within 30 miles of Rochester’s core.

It cites 11 broadband providers in the region with wired services, but notes areas of competition are limited.

“Rochester and its surrounding rural communities have too few affordable and reliable Internet service options,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at ILSR. “While the urban center does hold some broadband competition, Rochester certainly needs additional investment to nurture local businesses and ensure the high quality-of-life Rochester residents expect.”

In the city, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance report indicates competition drops as the organization filters service by type, ultimately showing Charter Communications as being the sole available provider with high-level, wired service in much of Rochester.

Staver said he’s not surprised by the outcome, but noted the cost of creating a city-run competitor is too high, especially when considered along with negative reports regarding other municipal systems.

“I still think that’s not a viable route,” he said, noting he is intrigued by interest shown by Indiana-based MetroNet, which has requested an opportunity to apply for a city franchise as a cable provider.

On Monday, the council approved a move to allow the application.

MicroNet offers phone, internet and cable services in more than 50 communities in Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky.

While companies can provide broadband services without city-approved franchises, agreements are required for cable-service providers.

Charter Communications has been the sole cable provider in Rochester since taking over the franchise from Bresnan Communications more than 15 years ago.

City officials have frequently cited a desire to attract another provider, but none have emerged.

Staver said MetroNet’s interest was unexpected.

“This seemed to come out of the blue,” he said.

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