BRISTOL – Plans for the potential addition of fiber optic broadband to be connected throughout Bristol continue to march forward.
Currently, city officials are waiting for the final outcome of a consultancy report to then be tentatively presented before the joint session of the Bristol Board of Finance and City Council in September.
“We embarked on this a few years ago, but the pandemic really drove home the need for strong and reliable internet access,” said Bristol Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu. “And now, the American Rescue Plan specifically lists broadband infrastructure that is designed to provide service to unserved or underserved households and businesses as one of the funding priorities.”
Around $28 million in federal funding is being distributed for various support and rehabilitation projects throughout Bristol. City officials have been waiting for guidance from the federal government before pushing further in initiatives where they feel some of the money could be best used.
The city has been surveying residents for open feedback regarding the fiber optic network across the community, said the mayor, with over 500 responding to the survey thus far. It continues to remain open so the city may continue collecting resident opinions and can be found on the ConnectBristol website.
City Chief Information Officer Scott Smith anticipates the consultancy report to come with its design recommendations from mid to late August.
“The city built its own fiber network to connect all its buildings and the schools,” said Smith. “We already run one connected to the poles. We’re looking to try and use that as much as we can and expand that fiber out into the neighborhoods around the schools and around the city buildings with the ultimate goal of reaching the whole town.”
Smith said he started speaking of this project with the mayor several years ago.
“With the covid pandemic, it catapulted it to the top (of concerns),” said Smith. “We have a digital divide issue in Bristol that is quite large. We have a lot of people working from home.”
Smith said the city had received complaints regarding local internet service and felt that the internet has developed into a vital utility.
“One of my ideas was this was going to happen no matter what. It may happen after I retire, but it’s going to happen. You’re going to see it everywhere at some point,” said Smith. “It’ll be a utility like water and sewer in my opinion.”
Municipal broadband is in its infancy still in New England, said Smith, and places like Maine and Vermont are also considering similar projects. The idea faces pushback from private internet service providers. Smith said he felt Connecticut was behind in some ways because of regulations facing the implementation of municipal fiber networks.
The chief information officer anticipates cost estimates from the coming report along with timelines for fiber optic implementation and a suggested course action with construction phases. The city engaged with the consultancy company within the last fiscal year, he said, and has been having biweekly meetings with the company virtually.
Why is a fiber optic network desirable to some?
“(Internet providers) are giving you a gigabit download speed but not giving you a gigabit upload,” said Smith for example. “One of the problems people are finding is when you’re on a video call and your kid is in the other room trying to do class and you’ve got two more people working from home and trying to do class, that upload speed makes a difference.”
Smith called fiber optic internet speed “bidirectional” and said in the early days of the internet upload speed was not as important as download speed because internet users were simply web browsing. Now, there’s more multiway communication online, streaming and content creation.
“The main reason for the fiber is bandwidth and it lasts up to 50 years,” said Smith. “Once you put this in, other than regular maintenance, we shouldn’t have to replace it wholesale for a long time.”
The chief information officer said, depending on the given Bristol neighborhood, fiber lines could be buried or run above ground.