By LA City Councilman Bob Blumenfield

Last week, Los Angeles marked 100 years since the Los Angeles Aqueduct, one of the greatest infrastructure achievements of the 20th Century, brought water to Los Angeles and set the stage for our City’s growth to become the metropolis it is today.

That same day, the Los Angeles City Council took an important step towards making a critical investment in our City’s virtual infrastructure that will ensure Los Angeles’s competitiveness in the 21st Century. The Council voted unanimously to move my proposal to bring community broadband, with potential for fiber and wireless capability forward by authorizing the City to draft a “request for proposals” (RFP).

Citywide broadband presents an enormous opportunity for Los Angeles to bridge the digital divide, create economic opportunity and attract new tourism dollars. It has the potential to truly transform our City, create jobs and make us economically competitive.

Other cities, from Chattanooga to Philadelphia, and from Corpus Christi to Riverside, CA are already experimenting with their own versions of wireless community broadband. LA would be by far the biggest City to do this and we would set the standard.

Los Angeles flirted with but abandoned an effort in 2007 to provide free WiFi but much has changed since then. First, technology has advanced exponentially, lowering costs while increasing functionality. At the same time the opportunity costs of not being online, for everyone from students to seniors, has grown exponentially. A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California suggested that 46% of Angelenos do not have broadband in their home – the highest of any major metropolitan area in the State.

Another key difference from the City’s 2007 approach is the way I intend to go about it. Where previous efforts have focused on the City building out proprietary networks using general fund or bond dollars, I have proposed pursuing solutions that would not rely on new City investments.  The request for proposals currently being drafted by the City is intended to create a public-private partnership that would leverage the City’s tremendous infrastructural assets, everything from street lights to parking meters, to fiber networks, VOiP and other contracts. The goal is to encourage creative solutions from the marketplace. Ultimately I envision free and universal basic access to the internet from San Pedro to Sylmar, with a premium portable service offered by providers which, due to the partnership with the City, would be vastly superior and cheaper to anything available today.

During my years representing the West San Fernando Valley in the California State Assembly, I was a passionate advocate for both technology improvements and infrastructure investment. I still believe that the first call for our limited dollars must be on traditional infrastructure; streets and sewers as well as services such as police and fire. However, we can “walk and chew gum” at the same time; we can partner with the private sector to build out our virtual infrastructure without harming our basic mission one iota.

In fact, if we plan properly, the two missions can complement each other, by, for instance, using street resurfacing opportunities as a window for laying down fiber-optics.

Now it is time to renew our commitment to a Los Angeles that sets the standard, not just in our physical infrastructure, but in our virtual infrastructure as well. William Mulholland didn’t think small when he envisioned the aqueduct, an engineering marvel that 100 years later supports a City of more than four million. And we must follow his example.

So what’s next? Following the Council’s vote, the RFP is currently being drafted and will be released for initial comment later this month. During the comment period we hope to hear from the public, experts and potential bidders on what they would like to see in our RFP before putting it out later this year. Once the technical and creative marketplace responds with their best ideas for making it happen, we will have a better idea of what ubiquitous broadband in Los Angeles will look like and how to get there.

I hope to one day echo the words of Mulholland and say, “There it is, use it,” to millions of City residents who will be able to access information via a citywide high-speed broadband network.