Fiber optic cable. Adrienne Serra/Flickr.

The Mayor is where?

At 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Mayor Bill Peduto flew to New York City to attend the Mayors Leadership Institute on Smart Cities, a workshop hosted by NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Launched in 2018, the conference aims “to help mayors make sense of the vast array of new technology tools that could address potential issues such as affordable housing, crime, public transit and citizen engagement,” according to a press release. The workshops “will provide practical skills, resources and best practices in a peer-to-peer setting.”

Specifically, Peduto is looking at the possibility of bringing a new source of high-speed internet to our city.

Speaking to the media after an event at Carnegie Mellon University last week, the Mayor said Pittsburgh is “looking at adding a fiber network to be a backhaul of a smart city. I’ll be in New York next Thursday and Friday with NYU to look and to talk with experts of what that would look like, what the costs would be and basically build out a model for it.”

A “backhaul?”

Just a fancy term for the physical connections that make up the backbone of the internet.

Don’t we already have internet?

Yes, but the majority of homes and businesses in the city are served by traditional copper cables. Newer fiber-optic cables use less power, are more stable and are capable of transmitting data at much faster speeds (up to 20 times faster in some cases).

Though the technology is vastly superior, it’s also extremely expensive to construct and maintain, and the cost has discouraged many of the dominant internet service providers from upgrading their infrastructure on a wide scale.

Verizon famously scaled back their plans for expanding their Fios fiber networks due to ballooning costs.

If the private sector won’t give us fiber-optic, where will we get it?

We may have to take the internet into our own hands.

Data compiled by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance shows that as of January of this year, 55 cities across the U.S. have invested in citywide fiber-optic networks to serve their residents.

The most notable success story is Chattanooga, Tennessee: In 2010, civic leaders used a combination of municipal bonds and stimulus funding to lay 6,000 miles of fiber-optic cable.

The program has supercharged the local economy, delivering cheap, high speeds to consumers and turning the small, southern city into a haven for industries like 3D printing and health tech that depend on fast, consistent web connections.

I’m sold. Where’s my new, super quick internet?

We may need a public-private partnership to get around a roadblock from Harrisburg: “The question is what we’re allowed to do through state law,” Peduto explained. “We can’t compete against private companies.”

Pennsylvania is one of 26 states with laws blocking or limiting municipal broadband services. In our case, municipalities may only build and sell access to their own networks if no private operator exists in the area, regardless of concerns over price or stability.

Still, the Mayor expressed optimism that a suitable workaround can be found through a public-private partnership.

“What we want to have is a system that we can operate, maybe a co-op like we do with the steam system Downtown,” he said. “And have nonprofit institutions joining with us, hopefully, our universities, and our hospitals.”

When will we learn more?

If the plan is indeed workable for our city, Peduto said details on the fiber network will be rolled out along with the rest of the OnePGH development plan. When that will be is right now anyone’s guess.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.