City resident David Hess says he’s a huge supporter of LanCity Connect, the public-private partnership that’s bringing fiber-optic broadband Internet to city residents.

But as the months go by, he’s become increasingly concerned, Hess, an IT systems architect, told City Council last week.

Communication is lacking, he said. People awaiting service are going months without hearing anything. And he’s skeptical of some of the technological choices being made.

LanCity Connect must become more “transparent and open” he said: “Focus has to be put on the customer side of this.”

City resident Christopher Blank, an IT systems and database administrator, told LNP he’s become worried about whether MAW Communications, the private company partnering with the city on LanCity Connect, has sufficient technical and management capacity.

Pat Brogan, the city chief of staff, acknowledged there have been problems.

“Without question, there’s a need for more consistent, more complete and more ongoing communication,” she said.

The city had pushed MAW to offer a rapid rollout, she said; in hindsight, it was overly optimistic.

“We fell short of meeting the expectations that we created,” Brogan said.

But installations are being made, Brogan said. MAW is adjusting. The city, she said, remains fully confident that Lan-City Connect is becoming, as intended, a high-quality, reliable community broadband network that benefits the local economy.

Pause, regroup

More than two years ago, MAW began building the city’s fiber-optic network’s “backbone.” In May, residential connections commenced in Lancaster’s Northwest and Southeast — phase 1 of a deployment schedule that extends into 2019.

A month later, however, MAW called a temporary halt to new customer registrations. MAW President Frank Wiczkowski said the company had to rethink its deployment plan. Demand was higher than expected, and the installation subcontractors MAW had hired weren’t doing satisfactory work.

LanCity Connect shifted to doing all installations with in-house staff, said Brian Kelly, director of operations.

“Our team, which is lean, got leaner,” and that slowed things down, he said.

It could have fixed that by hiring regionally or nationally. But the city wants LanCity Connect to hire and train local people, to maximize long-term local economic impact.

So that’s what MAW is doing, Kelly said. So far, it has brought on half a dozen city residents.

Meanwhile, there was another issue: Phase 1 covers a large area, and signups were widely scattered.

To keep costs manageable, MAW must minimize the times it visits a block and maximize what each visit accomplishes.

It can’t afford to connect one person here, two people there, and so on. An average of six to seven customers per block or better is the goal, Kelly said.

So it’s breaking down phase 1 into smaller pieces and proceeding methodically, announcing which blocks are coming next and doing “targeted outreach” to increase signups in sections where they are sparse.

Unfortunately, some people who signed up in May are in low-signup areas, Kelly said. LanCity Connect will reach them, but because it’s adjusting its installation schedule dynamically based on how its outreach efforts go, it often can’t tell them when.

Customers don’t like to hear “we’ll let you know,” but it’s the most honest answer, Kelly said.

“I understand the frustration,” he said.

Brogan noted that the fiber-optic network has two purposes. Half the bandwidth is reserved for city services, such as traffic-light control and water-meter reading.

That’s smart and cost-effective, Brogan said, but it means “a lot more moving parts” for MAW to deal with.

LanCity Connect will step up its customer outreach and communication, Brogan said. Kelly said the organization always returns calls, provided it can reach the caller. To ensure a response, he said, don’t just hang up, but leave a message that includes a contact number.

IP addresses

Hess and Blank said they’re bothered by MAW’s decision to put the LanCity Connect network behind a single public IP address — that’s the unique number that identifies a host device on the internet. Within LanCity Connect, MAW is giving customers static addresses, rather than assigning them dynamically.

With so many static addresses, there’s potential for user error and address conflicts, Hess said. If one user causes a website to block or throttle the public IP address, everyone on LanCity Connect will be affected. The arrangement makes remote access to your home computer impossible.

“This is not a sign of being a technologically advanced internet service provider,” he said.

Kelly said the functionality Hess wants is available for business accounts. It may eventually be provided for residential accounts, but it’s not something the majority needs, so it hasn’t been a priority, he said.

Christopher Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks at the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said he suspects MAW may change its mind on that point.

The residential market is different from the institutional clients that MAW has served up to now, he said: “It’s not the industry norm to put everyone behind a single IP.”

As for the snags in phase 1, Mitchell repeated what he’s said previously to LNP: Such things aren’t uncommon in community broadband.

“These are the kinds of reasons that this is a hard business,” he said.

Community broadband isn’t corporate broadband, Brogan said. It’s a challenge, she said, but a “worthy” one.

Hess said he knows LanCity Connect is a new venture. Hopefully, more feedback from customers will spur changes for the better, he said.