Commissioners to pursue infrastructure upgrades in Suddenlink negotiations

Enid's Suddenlink office is in Westgate Plaza.

ENID, Okla. — Discussions concerning Suddenlink Communications have focused largely on issues such as customer service and billing, but Ward 3 City Commissioner Ben Ezzell is raising concerns about Enid's telecom infrastructure, which he says is outdated.

Commissioners can try and press Suddenlink to invest in upgrades, and if that won't work, Ezzell suggests the city could take the matter into its own hands.

"I would much prefer (Suddenlink) be here and spend money here, and I am perfectly happy with them to continue doing business, but I am not happy for them to say, 'We're sticking with what we've got, live with it,'" Ezzell said. "That's just not good enough."

Much of the existing infrastructure Suddenlink uses in Enid  is copper coaxial — the less efficient predecessor to fiber-optic cable.

It's a hybrid set-up, meaning some fiber-optic cable is plugged in here and there but just how much the company wouldn't say.

"We don't share those details," Janet Meahan, senior communications director, said. "What I can say is that our network in Enid is fully capable of delivering our most advanced product set."

Ezzell wants to see a fiber-to-the-home system installed in Enid, providing the town with the speed and power the rest of the country, and the world, increasingly enjoys.

"I don't want us to get left behind," Ezzell said, adding others on the commission believe as he does.

"It is the obvious logical next step for our infrastructure. It's clearly what every community is, and should be moving toward," he said. "It doesn't take a crystal ball to see that a robust telecom infrastructure ... is a requirement now. You don't get to attract people to your community, you don't get to have a thriving community, unless you can offer that kind of access to technology. There's no replacement. It's the modern condition."

The question is how Enid will get this modern infrastructure.

Ezzell hasn't crunched any numbers yet, so he can't speculate at the cost except to say it would be expensive.

Ideally, Suddenlink would undertake the effort. They've done it in other markets and have plans to do more, "but so far Enid is not on that list," he said. "I'm not real thrilled about that."

He plans to push Suddenlink on the issue as negotiations continue. As it happens, this topic may give the city decent leverage at the table.

FCC rules can make it tough for a city to break things off with a cable provider, and in order for Enid to deny Suddenlink a contract renewal, the company would have to be in violation of one or more FCC consumer performance standards.

One such standard requires the cable franchise be able to meet the future needs of the city it is operating in. So, if the city of Enid determines its needs can only be met with by a fiber-to-the-home system, it's possible Suddenlink would have to provide it, and if it refuses commissioners could have grounds to end the contract.

Bryce Kennedy, a local attorney hired by the city to assist with negotiations, addressed this strategy cautiously.

"Could (the city) fail to grant a license based on that? I would prefer to discuss that in the meeting in February," Kennedy said.

Another option is for the city to pursue implementing a fiber-optic system on its own, Ezzell said. Less appealing, certainly, but still potentially viable.

"Sure we could do that. It would be a pretty significant investment, but yeah there's nothing stopping us," he said. "The truth is, one way or another, the citizens of Enid will be paying for it. Whether they're paying for it in the form of fees to Suddenlink, or in the form of taxes to the city of Enid ... they're paying for it."

5th utility in Ponca City

Enid would hardly be the first to do it. Ponca City is in the midst of installing, and operating, a fiber network to encompass the entire city limits, available to all residents and businesses.

It's the fifth utility in Ponca, David Williams, Ponca City's technology services director said. Only a few have it so far — the customer base is 270 residents and businesses — but in a few year's time the whole town will be able to decide if they want a 50 megabit-per-second plan, a 100 megabit or 1 gigabit.

"Our residents deserve this kind of access ... the same kind that someone has in Tulsa or Oklahoma City," Williams said.

Ponca's leaders turned at first to their local provider. It wasn't interested.

"The city had been asking for that repeatedly for quite some time. Neither Cable One or Sparklight (previously Cable One) over the last 20 years have really stepped up to the plate," Williams said. "That was one of the driving reasons why our commissioners wanted us to find a way to make this happen," Williams said, so they did.

The plan is five phases.

Phase 1, covering a square-mile in roughly the center of town, began in March 2019, and public had access by July. There's four more phases to go, the fifth and final anticipated to complete in summer 2023.

Estimated total cost by the end of the five phases comes in around $21 million, but in the near future, Williams is confident Ponca will have it paid off and profitable. And that's money staying in town, he said, buying police cars and patching roads.

Besides, it's a better product, he said.

"What AT&T and Comcast are offering is high-speed internet, I don't dispute that at all, but what Ponca City broadband is offering is ultra high-speed internet," he said.

So far, the project is rolling out smoothly, according to Williams. The new utility is working well, those who have it are happy with it. The rest are anxious for their turn.

"We haven't really had any pushback yet. We're actually getting more questions from folks outside of phase 1 asking, 'When are you getting to us?'"

Ponca spent several years planning, studying, weighing options before executing. Plenty of municipalities have failed in trying to establish a city-run fiber system, "they bit off more than they could chew," in some cases, or didn't pay attention to debt ratios, according to Williams.

If Enid's truly interested in establishing a city-run system, Williams recommends diligence.

"There's a lot of bad examples out there," he said, lots of lessons to learn from.

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Willetts is education and city reporter for the Enid News & Eagle.
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