The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council took on roads and trams Wednesday afternoon, but the most ambitious infrastructure project may be a push to help wire the entire parish for high-speed internet.
Following pleas from entrepreneurs and technology professionals, the council unanimously approved a $150,000 contract to study the issue and develop a plan.
“This is an investment that is setting us up for now and for the next 50 years,” said entrepreneur and library board member Logan Leger.
The city-parish’s information technology director would like to lay conduits along all area roads and have schools and libraries serve as broadband hubs.
But the city isn’t trying to compete with AT&T or Cox.
“We don’t want to be in the communication business,” City-Parish Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel said.
Lafayette developed a municipal system years ago, but Baton Rouge is too built-up, and it would take too much money to start a new government utility program, IT Director Eric Romero explained.
Rather, he wants to put conduits in the ground. The pipes are used to protect electric lines but can be disruptive to bury. Romero wants the city-parish to lay conduits whenever the city performs road or sewer work anywhere they don’t exist. They may also make plans to dig with the sole purpose of laying down conduits.
Once they are in the ground, the city-parish can lease the conduits to private companies, who can thread cables through the pipes to bring service to businesses and homes along the line.
Some telecommunications companies, specifically Cox, have been resistant to the city’s plan, Romero said. However, he believes they may have softened upon learning the city-parish isn’t trying to set up a competing business.
No one from Cox spoke at Wednesday’s council meeting, and a spokeswoman wrote in an email to The Advocate that company officials “stand ready to partner with the city-parish on any and all broadband access projects.”
Curtis Heroman, who advocated for greater access to high-speed internet, said he’s seen his peers leave Baton Rogue for Austin, Texas; Seattle; and Silicon Valley.
“For the first time, they started emailing me, asking, ‘What’s happening in Baton Rouge?’ … We have a big opportunity here,” he said.
Several speakers pointed out that while some projects benefit specific areas of the parish, the push for access to the internet will be a boon to everyone, whether they live on the north side of the parish or in the south. It will also be a draw for businesses and help level the playing field for students who do much of their coursework online, various speakers and officials said.
The city doesn’t know how many properties have access to high-speed internet, and that will be one aspect of the study, which will be conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Columbia Telecommunications Corporation. CTC President Joanne Hovis told the Metro Council her company works exclusively for government agencies and nonprofits, so it doesn’t have any conflicts of interest with private internet providers.
Whatever the specific plan, installing the conduits parishwide will be a lengthy process, Romero warned. Work can begin this year, though he isn’t sure exactly how long it will take. It will probably be easier to set up in urban areas, but folks in the country may have to wait a bit longer unless their homes and businesses are on main thoroughfares. And it will still be up to internet service providers to begin service, albeit with one major barrier out of the way.
One aspect of the overall plan can be rolled out soon, though.
The federal government picks up about 85 percent of the cost to connect public schools and libraries to broadband service. Local agencies use that money to defray the cost of service provided over private lines, but Romero wants to install fiber owned by the schools and libraries. A private internet company will still provide service, but by owning the lines, the government agencies will save some money and have more options.
Similarly, Romero wants all local government sites to be connected via broadband lines owned by the city-parish, again as a cost-saving measure.
The Metro Council responded enthusiastically to the internet plan. Councilman Buddy Amoroso remarked that Baton Rouge residents need only look to the city’s traffic to see what havoc poor infrastructure planning can wreak. Now the community has a chance to do a better job preparing for the network which will connect the next generation.
“Broadband and fiber is the infrastructure of the future,” Amoroso said.
Councilman John Delgado was more blunt.
“It is 2016, guys. It’s time to bring Baton Rouge into the 21st century,” he said.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.