Update, Aug. 8: On Tuesday, City Council unanimously approved the municipal broadband contract with Shentel discussed at its Aug. 1 committee meeting.
City Council is scheduled to vote next Tuesday on a contract with the company Lancaster has selected to revive and complete its community broadband initiative.
The agreement commits Shentel to building out a fiber-to-the-home network over the next three years that offers downtown Lancaster and 100% of city residential properties access to upload and download speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, at no cost to city government.
Shentel is to provide service for the next 40 years at prices comparable to those it offers in other Pennsylvania markets. Low-income households eligible for the federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program will be able to receive 50 megabit-per-second service for no more than $30 per month, which will be offset by the ACP’s $30 subsidy, making their service free.
The city administration introduced Shentel to City Council in April. Since then City Hall and company representatives have been negotiating terms. The document presented to City Council has been vetted and approved by outside counsel that specializes in telecommunications contracting, Solicitor Barry Handwerger told City Council during a presentation at Tuesday’s committee meeting.
Mayor Danene Sorace called the pending deal “a giant step forward.” When millions of people began working and learning from home during the pandemic, it exposed the yawning digital divide between those with adequate Internet access and those without.
Closing that divide is now a nationwide federal priority, and “we’re going to beat most every community to the punch,” Sorace said.
For a municipality to provide high-speed broadband coverage to 100% of its residents “is a rarity” and an honor for Lancaster, Handwerger said.
Shentel will be building on the fiber-optic network begun by MAW Communications. The city took over ownership in 2021 and under the Shentel agreement it will continue to own that existing portion. It’s expected to remain in service throughout the 40-year contract term, Handwerger said.
About 160 users are believed to still be receiving service through it, although the city is not billing them. They will eventually be absorbed into Shentel’s service, but when that will happen and other details remain to be determined, Handwerger said.
Under the contract, Shentel is responsible for obtaining all necessary approvals and permits from the city, other regulatory authorities and utility pole owners — the issue that landed MAW in court when PPL sued it for unauthorized connections to its poles. Shentel is doing extensive underground installation in neighboring municipalities, but in Lancaster the vast majority of the build-out will be aerial, Handwerger said.
Shentel and the city will create “a mutually agreeable written communications plan” to inform residents when work is done in their neighborhoods. Shentel must document any complaints and seek to resolve them within 10 business days.
The company must keep City Hall updated on the progress of work and must consider equity issues as it chooses which neighborhoods to build out first. Each phase of the network can be activated as it is completed, so many residents will have service before the three-year deadline for full coverage, Handwerger said.
The contract commits Shentel to prioritize hiring Lancaster residents and to provide marketing materials in Spanish and other languages that are prevalent in the city. Billing will be available in Spanish.
Christopher Kyle, Shentel’s vice president of industry affairs, attended Tuesday’s meeting but did not speak.
Along with the contract, the city is required under federal law to have a franchise agreement with Shentel. That will come before City Council next, and must be approved by ordinance, Handwerger said.
Among other things, it will set the terms of a franchise fee, which Shentel will pay to the city out of its revenues. The city has a franchise agreement with Comcast that the Shentel agreement will “mirror,” Handwerger said.
Comcast is providing $550,000 to Lancaster in 2023 under its agreement, according to city budget documents.