Kansas Corporation Commission staff urges approval of public fiber broadband for Chanute

Kansas Corporation Commission staff members are recommending approval of a plan by the city of Chanute to provide state-of-the-art broadband Internet service to its residents and neighbors.

Commission officials who analyzed the plan said it wouldn’t duplicate existing broadband service and that it is appropriate for the city to provide Internet service to its residents – two hurdles the city has to clear under a 1947 state law before issuing bonds to pay for it.

The final ruling rests with the three members of the commission, but staff recommendations are generally highly influential in the process.

Both AT&T and Cable One provide Internet service in Chanute, but residents have complained that it’s slow and balky. City officials said they have tried to get those companies and Google to install fiber to homes, but they wouldn’t do that for a small town because they say there’s not enough profit in it.

“Neither AT&T nor Cable One furnish or are currently able to furnish Gigabit connectivity to all of the City of Chanute and three miles thereof, as proposed by the City of Chanute,” said the report by Christine Aarnes, the commission’s director of telecommunications, and Jeff McClanahan, director of utilities.

“Although there are current providers of telecommunications and broadband services in the Chanute area, the existing utility services are not identical or the same as that proposed by Chanute,” the report said. “Staff, therefore, concludes that Chanute’s expansion plans will not result in the duplication of existing utility services in the area to be served by Chanute.”

AT&T officially intervened in the case last week. On Monday, the company said in an e-mail to The Eagle that it has not taken a position on Chanute’s fiber system.

“As a provider in the area, any decision made by the KCC could impact AT&T’s business operations, which is why we asked to be included in the proceeding and learn more about the application,” the statement said. “We have no further comment at this time.”

The gigabit service the city proposes would be 14 times faster and 60 percent cheaper than any Internet service that Chanute residents can get now.

The city already provides fiber broadband service to government facilities, select businesses and the local hospital and community college. City parks are covered with free wi-fi.

If the city gets final approval, it is planning to create a broadband system that will be available to every home and be as fast as the Google Fiber network being deployed in the Kansas City metropolitan area. The service charge is to be set at $40 a month, about 42 percent less than Google Fiber.

The commission’s decision could have policy implications beyond Chanute.

Early this year, the city helped quash a Senate bill that would have outlawed municipal broadband throughout the state.

The Senate Commerce Committee introduced the bill – written and submitted by a cable-TV lobbyist – and scheduled a hearing. It was canceled after Chanute started raising issues about it.

The thinking behind the bill was that cities and counties, which don’t have to pay taxes, would be unfair competition for the private-sector service providers.

In the commission case, Chanute is arguing that the 1947 law was actually designed to protect municipalities from defaulting on bonds because of private-sector competition, not to protect private-sector providers from competition with local government.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.