- The Pittsburgh City Council voted Wednesday for the city to partner with communications infrastructure firm Crown Castle to build a unified fiber network for municipal buildings and services.
- The agreement, which was first announced in August, would see Crown Castle install fiber optic cables to serve 131 city facilities, including EMS operations, fire stations, recreation centers and city services. The fiber network, dubbed NetPGH, can also offer the infrastructure for smart cities projects like connected transportation infrastructure and the eventual deployment of public wi-fi in certain neighborhoods.
- "For the first time, the city government will be taking control of our own destiny, so to speak, with our IT infrastructure," said Heidi Norman, acting director of the Pittsburgh Department of Innovation and Performance. The network, Norman added, will "ensure that the departments we serve are able to access broadband consistently and with good, reliable, high-speed connections."
As cities have ramped up their online services and their use of smart sensors and connected infrastructure, high-speed internet has become a necessity. While most cities have taken whatever broadband service was available to them at the time, Fiber Broadband Association President and CEO Gary Bolton said many governments are now looking to lay fiber for a "seamless, cohesive" network. A unified fiber network connects institutions and buildings on a single high-speed wired network controlled by one provider, reducing lag time and delays.
"As we move to new wireless technologies, high-capacity fiber is really becoming the critical infrastructure for the future of cities," Bolton said. "As we’re continuing to work from home, school from home, do health care and other services remotely, equipping institutions with high-capacity fiber helps them modernize and puts communities in a position to move to the future."
Governments have been seeking partnerships with broadband and fiber providers to lay the necessary infrastructure to outfit communities with high-speed equipment, with mixed results. Cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Fort Collins, Colorado, have established municipal broadband networks that serve government institutions and residents alike. Over the past decade, Google has installed fiber networks in several cities, starting with Kansas City, Missouri. But the company also had to slow its rollout and even pull out of markets like Louisville, Kentucky. because of infrastructure problems.
Pittsburgh’s 10-year, $10.1 million agreement with Crown Castle would allow the city to move beyond the patchwork of broadband providers that currently serve municipal services, Norman said. The high-speed network will serve everything from public safety to recreation services, providing connectivity with the "stability and speed that modern cities really demand," Norman said. The network — which could be active in early 2022 — will also facilitate Pittsburgh’s experimentation with connected vehicles and infrastructure as part of its Smart Corridors initiative, which seeks to manage traffic and mobility through connected stoplights and infrastructure.
"We have not had the ability to provide the foundational IT infrastructure that is desperately needed for a local government’s innovation," Norman said. "With the advent of NetPGH, we will be able to be better technical partners for our colleagues serving the residents of Pittsburgh and help them innovate even more."
However, a Pennsylvania law that bars local governments from providing internet in competition with commercial operators will prevent Pittsburgh from offering a fiber network as a municipal service to residents.
The $1 trillion infrastructure plan passed by the Senate and now being debated by the House includes $65 billion for broadband connectivity, with an emphasis on bringing internet to unconnected communities and neighborhoods. According to the Federal Communications Commission, some 14 million Americans lacked broadband access at the end of 2019, although independent reports say the figure is much higher. However, Bolton said the funding should also help cities interested in expanding broadband in their cities by partnering with private companies for a larger rollout.
Crown Castle has worked with cities including Cleveland, Baltimore and Palo Alto, California, on building or expanding fiber service in busy urban areas. The company, has also partnered with schools, utilities and other institutions. Michelle Kavey, Crown Castle’s managing director of government and education, said there is growing interest in tailored solutions, especially as cities work on digital equity initiatives.
"In today’s digital world, we have to think about fiber optic cable in the same way we think about other utilities. It’s essential to modern life," Kavey said.