Baldwin City’s contract to install Internet cable spurs protest from local tech company owner
The Baldwin City Council approved on Monday a bid to replace fiber cable connecting nine city facilities.
In doing so, the council rejected an attempt to link the measure with a local tech company’s effort to bring gigabit Internet to the community and sought to jumpstart negotiations to move that project forward.
The council approved awarding a $35,100 contract to Universal Communications to install about 7,000 feet of overhead cable and 3,000 feet of underground line connecting City Hall with eight other city facilities. The city’s 20-year-old cable network became inoperable when a squirrel chewed through an overhead line. An attempt to replace the network with a wireless system proved unequal to the city’s needs.
The new cable Universal Communications is to install will have armor coating as protection against future squirrel attacks.
Jason Mock said the council’s utility subcommittee he chairs recommended the Universal bid over two bids from local company RG Fiber. The first bid option RG Fiber submitted would have performed the same installation as Universal for a cost of $49,925.
RG Fiber’s second bid would take a different approach and tied the city’s cable network to the introduction of gigabit fiber Internet service to the community. In October, the city council approved issuing up to $4 million in industrial revenue bonds to Dawn Fiber LLC, a company Mike Bosch and his partners at Reflective Group started a year ago for the purpose of bringing gigabit fiber to Baldwin City. In the last month, Dawn Fiber was dissolved and replaced with RG Fiber.
The company has been working to get financing, infrastructure and engineering details in place in the seven months since the IRBs were approved.
Attending the meeting with about 15 supporters, Bosch told the council he opposed an aerial solution to the city network both as a taxpayer and an entrepreneur attempting to a bring a metropolitan-type Google fiber system to a much smaller community. He characterized installation of a new aerial fiber network as fixing a flat tire by buying a new car and did not want the council to approve RG Fiber’s bid to install such a system.
Bosch said his preferred solution would use a mix of aerial and buried cable, which the company would own as part of its gigabit fiber network serving the community, Bosch said. RG Fiber would then enter into a service contract with the city to provide a virtual local area network for the city. The cost to the city would be a $900 connection fee for each of the nine city buildings served, $39,000 to install buried cable to the city’s power plant south of Orange Street — a section of cable that could not serve other customers — and a monthly Internet service fee of $1,170. A temporary patch to the city’s current network would be made to serve the city until the new network was in place.
The option’s advantages for the city would be the greater protection from the elements of buried cable, a much faster Internet uploading and downloading speeds and RG Fiber assuming all liability risks, Bosch said.
Bosch told the council that RG Fiber's failure to secure the fiber installation contract could jeopardize the attempt to bring gigabit Internet to Baldwin City.
Mock and Councilman Ken Wagner, the other council member on the utilities sub-committee, questioned how a contract of less than $40,000 could affect what Bosch said was a $6 million project. They said the sub-committee saw the two proposals as unrelated.
Factors in the sub-committee’s recommendation were the security assurance of sensitive data owning its own closed network would give the city and Universal Communication’s proven record in cable installation, which RG Fiber as a start-up company couldn’t demonstrate, Mock and Wagner said.
Those factors swayed the majority of the council, which voted 4-1 to award the installation contract to Universal Communications with Councilman Shane Sharkey voting no.
The vote came after Bosch said the service RG Fiber would provide the city would have to conform with stringent federal security protection laws. He reiterated the threat to the gigabit project, saying the city could be sending the wrong message to banks and investors should it not accept the option he proposed.
Finally, Bosch said the aerial network was a “right turn” away from the right-of-way agreement needed for the gigabit fiber network installation, which had been a part of his negotiations with the city for the past six months. That, too, created uncertainty, he said.
Mock and Wagner replied that Dawn Fiber had “red-lined” all details of a right-of-way agreement when a draft that agreement was returned to the city. After Wagner challenged Bosch to meet with city representatives to hammer out a right-of-way agreement in the coming week, it was agreed the parties would meet Tuesday with the goal to have an agreement ready to bring to the council at its June 2 meeting.