The first comments about the program were aired at a retreat two years ago, when Auburn City Council members set themselves the goal of increasing Internet access to achieve digital parity in the city by 2020.
In 2016, City leaders agreed to focus first on providing broadband access to low-income students and launched a pilot “digital parity” program apart from service providers like Comcast and ATT, covering downtown Auburn to Game Farm Park, parts of Lea Hill and school areas on Muckleshoot Hill.
Those parts of Auburn have been wired since February 2017 at a cost to the city of about $15,000, the pilot program is complete, and the time is now for the City to take the next step toward achieving the goal it set itself in 2015, Paul Haugan, director of the Department of Innovation and Technology for the City of Auburn, told the City Council at a study session Monday evening at City Hall.
“We have proposed, at a minimum, 80 percent of low-income students as the coverage goal,” Haugan said, adding that IT planning in 2018 will target five high-value areas the Auburn School District has already provided.
Taking that minimum as his starting point, Haugan then rolled out two percentage-of-coverage options and their associated cost estimates. Under option 1, for an estimated $2.71 million, 80 percent of low-income students and 54 percent of all Auburn residents would receive Internet coverage; and under option 2, for an estimated $6.27 million, 80 percent of all Auburn residents would receive it.
Haugan stressed that the figures he offered Monday are only best estimates based on current experience, as a detailed project estimate would cost a significant amount of money and lose its accuracy as costs change.
“In addition, we expect these costs to go down over time. As our previous projects have shown, our approach to partnering with vendors has already saved us substantial sums; that, in addition to new technologies currently being developed, should translate into lower costs over the life of the project,” Haugan said.
Haugan also showed how the costs could be made more feasible by extending the project out to perhaps a five to 10-year-long effort, that is, by not doing it all at once, stretching it out.
Councilman Bill Peloza asked Haugan whether he had considered a number below 80 percent.
“I’m a little skeptical about the dollars we’re looking at, when we have homelessness confronting us, road maintenance. … The council’s going to have to make some big, heavy decisions in taking care of the Internet for the low-income folks in our town. I haven’t seen any funding area that you’re looking at, but that’s my concern. We have these things over our head; we need to take care of our citizens,” Peloza said.
Haugan responded by describing benefits he expects would flow from wiring it up.
“This program moves us closer to being able to call Auburn a connected city,” Haugan responded. “We already have all our government offices hooked up. We are now talking about providing services to the citizens. As we start to get our arms wrapped around smarter cities, connected cities, the Internet of things, these are all looming issues on the horizon that we are going to have to face at some point in time. This helps position Auburn as a connected city.”
Homelessness, poverty are indeed major systemic problems to deal with, and they were part of the original discussion on digital parity, Haugan said.
“Poverty, if it is addressed at a young age, we have a much better chance of changing that culture. And as we were discussing this, starting at a young age. where Auburn schools are starting also, by putting Chrome Books into the hands of students and getting them into the digital age that gives us an opportunity to attack those problems, homelessness, poverty, [providing] better-paying, middle-class jobs, it starts by giving people better opportunities. That’s my answer as Paul Haugan, who had two teachers for parents,” Haugan said.