By the Beacon Journal editorial board on August 8, 2016
On Wednesday, Fairlawn is set to begin an ambitious project to expand its high-speed internet service to the entire city and the Akron-Bath-Fairlawn Joint Economic Development District. By the end of next year, the FairlawnGig network — offering speeds as much as 500 times faster than now available — is expected to be within reach of 800 businesses and 3,000 residents. So far, the service is available just at the City Hall campus and two hotels, the Hilton and the DoubleTree.
What began eight years ago as a discussion about making Summit Mall a Wi-Fi “hot spot” has evolved into a much larger effort to take advantage of an increasingly digital-driven economy. By bringing fiber-optic cable past every home and business, and providing the city and development district with free Wi-Fi coverage, city officials hope to attract new residents, especially millennials, bring in businesses and increase property values.
To do so, Fairlawn is borrowing $10 million through Summit County’s Development Finance Authority, taking advantage of a good bond rating and low debt level. Mayor Bill Roth calls it an investment in “the utility of the 21st century,” necessary to the vitality of the city.
At a usage rate of 35 percent, Fairlawn expects to have sufficient revenue for operations and maintenance. Going above that level would provide money to pay back the $10 million, although the mayor anticipates the city will not be able to retire the entire debt with revenue from the internet service. In other words, Fairlawn is subsidizing construction to reap the benefits of future growth.
Just a few other cities have made similar investments. In Ohio, Hudson and Dublin offer high-speed internet, with a focus on business customers; Columbus just received a $50 million Smart Cities federal grant to develop high-speed service. Chattanooga, Tenn., is among the top cities in the world in offering high-speed internet service, but it spent $330 million, including $111 million in federal stimulus funds. Reports indicate the system has triggered $1.3 billion in investment in the local economy and 5,200 new jobs.
In Akron, officials are considering taking another look at municipal Wi-Fi or high-speed internet service after a $6 million plan to bring Wi-Fi to downtown, called Connect Akron, collapsed some three years ago, mainly due to technical problems.
Fairlawn is fortunate to have the ability to finance its project, which also will benefit the region. So far, the city has signed up 16 percent of its potential customers by offering an incentive program that waives installation fees during construction.
What’s too bad is that local communities must take the lead in financing Wi-Fi and high-speed internet networks. They deserve eager public partners, or a more substantial investment by federal and state governments to build up a high-tech infrastructure that benefits everyone.