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County and City Officials Considering Various Ways to Build Out Fiber

The two entities want to spend federal funds to increase connectivity.

Thousands of Dallas County residents who have no or limited Internet access could see more options as local governments consider investing in high-speed Internet infrastructure.

Consultants presented recommendations to the Dallas County Commissioners Court in late October, where the majority of commissioners agreed a plan is needed.

Dallas County is considering using federal COVID-19 relief money to build infrastructure like cell towers and install fiber-optic cable across the entire county.

The city has a separate broadband plan underway.

Ninety-five percent of Dallas County has infrastructure for broadband. The county wants to facilitate the upgrade of broadband to fiber to provide higher Internet speeds. But finding an Internet provider willing to invest in a potentially unprofitable area has been the problem.

Once the county pays for the infrastructure, officials believe it will help spur competition, resulting in more high-speed Internet options.

The county has penciled in $35 million in federal COVID-19 funds for the effort. Much of the undeveloped or sparsely developed broadband infrastructure is in southeastern Dallas County, Joanne Hovis with CTC Technology and Energy consultants told commissioners on Tuesday.

The consultants conducted a random phone survey and reported that 17 percent of Dallas County households earning less than $50,000 outside of the city of Dallas do not have home Internet service.

The Dallas City Council last year approved using $43 million in federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for its Internet access plan.

The city allocated $3 million for installing Wi-Fi at some parks and recreation facilities. The city is considering using the remaining $40 million on at least two other initiatives: building at least 100 miles of fiber-optic cable around the city and contracting with at least one nonprofit to run a digital navigators program. The initiative is meant to provide digital literacy training and help find low-cost options for computers and Internet access.

Bill Zielinski, Dallas’ CIO, told council members in June that the fiber ring would be connected to city buildings and routed to focus on reaching areas least served by broadband.

A city-owned fiber network could lead to more reliable Internet and lower service costs for residents and businesses, Zielinski said. The city could work with Internet service providers to allow them to use the network, reducing their cost for delivering services. That could lead companies to offer low-cost or free versions of their service, he said.

The city estimated in 2021 it would cost $13.5 million to build a 100-mile fiber ring, $25 million for 180 miles, and $50 million for 360 miles. Annual costs to maintain fiber rings in those ranges would run from $1 million to $4 million.

But several council members expressed disappointment with the plan. They said they meant to put the $40 million aside to fund projects that would more immediately help residents.

Genesis Gavino, chief of staff to Dallas’ city manager, told The Dallas Morning News that more immediate options, like the city helping people pay for Internet subscriptions, could be more expensive for the city in the longer run.

“We want to better help facilitate (Internet service providers) being able to provide low-cost, high-speed Internet for more residents,” she said. “If there’s no infrastructure there, we can pay for subscriptions but they still won’t be connected. And for the ones that are, it’s possible that the service they have won’t be high speed or reliable.”

The city is soliciting proposals from groups for the digital navigators program. The program is estimated to cost $2 million and last one year, with the option to extend to a second.

Both the city and county emphasized that they have no interest in becoming Internet providers.

The county will decide in the coming weeks whether to pay to build the infrastructure. Commissioners have to also decide whether to own the infrastructure and lease it to Internet service providers or to pay for an Internet service provider to build and own the infrastructure and allow the county to lease some of the fiber cables.

©2022 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.