New Braunfels is using a three-year-old broadband study to move forward on a plan to build a taxpayer-funded fiber-optic system that will allow a contracted provider to offer faster internet services to area businesses.
City leaders cite a lack of fast internet service as the reason to use at least $3.5 million in local taxpayer money on the project. But, since that study was completed in 2015, at least one provider now offers gigabit-capable speeds across the area.
Moreover, new technologies that have been developed in the last few years are not mentioned in the study on which the city has based its plan. Those include wireless systems that tend to be much more cost effective than digging up streets to lay fiber-optic cable.
The New Braunfels City Council recently issued a request for qualifications seeking internet service providers (ISPs) to partner on the project, which would offer services via 55 miles of cable.
Assistant City Manager Kristi Aday, the point person on the broadband effort, didn’t return requests for comment from The Texas Monitor, but she previously told San Antonio Business Journal “we’re not interested in being a provider, but we can invest in the infrastructure.”
A Texas state law passed in 1995 prohibits cities from providing internet services. A federal appellate court upheld that law in 1999 after it was challenged by Abilene. While governments can’t build their own networks, they can form public-private partnerships for service, as New Braunfels plans to do.
The study being used by New Braunfels was conducted by Denver-based Magellan Advisors, the leader in providing research for local governments seeking information on possible broadband projects.
City leaders argue they need to invest in internet to attract business and industry, but New Braunfels just lured TaskUs Inc., a business outsource process center based in Santa Monica, Calif., that has promised to bring 2,000 jobs to the region. A key decision in leasing the space in New Braunfels was access to broadband, said chief operating officer Joe Buggy.
“Telecom providers lit the fiber for us before we signed the lease because we had to have redundant internet providers into the data room,” he said.
The availability of high-speed internet has grown in New Braunfels since the Magellan study, including via Charter, which has expanded its services there.
In a letter to New Braunfels Mayor Barron Casteel earlier this year, Charter Regional Senior Director Jeff Burdett pointed out that Charter has invested $21 billion in infrastructure and technology improvements across its national footprint, including in Comal and Guadalupe counties.
“Technology evolves, and improves, rapidly,” Burdett wrote. He suggested that smaller providers to be hired by the city might not be up to the job. “Having the most up-to-date information on what existing service providers are offering your constituents — and having that information prior to consideration of novel arrangements with untested service providers that may not have the ability to deliver promised benefits or on financial promises — is critically important,” he said.
Casteel didn’t return calls from The Texas Monitor seeking comment.
DecisionData.org, a nonprofit that provides cable and internet information about localities in the U.S., says there are 14 home internet options and 31 business internet options in New Braunfels, although only 27 percent of households have access to fiber and the fastest speeds.
Michael Meek, president and CEO of the Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce, told The Texas Monitor that he believes local businesses need more and cheaper internet options.
“It’s certainly needed, but I’m not sure what they’re going to do with it,” he said of the city. “The local business community has been seeking faster and more affordable internet for a long time.”
Johnny Kampis can be reached at [email protected].