New Jersey town's broadband plans raise ire of lobbying group

  • The city of Vineland, N.J. has begun the process by commissioning a feasibility study conducted by the open access fiber company Bonfire

  • The city says the current broadband offerings in Vineland are inadequate

  • Now, an alleged dark money group is complaining about the city's process

The mayor of the city of Vineland, N.J., says residents of his city are underserved by currently available broadband services. And he’s moving forward with a plan to create a municipal broadband network. This has already sparked lobbying against the prospect by a dark money group called the Taxpayers Protection Alliance Foundation.

Currently, Comcast serves 98.9% of Vineland with its hybrid fiber coax (HFC) network, and Verizon and Earthlink each serve fiber broadband to about 50% of Vineland locations, according to Broadband Now.

In a February letter, Vineland Mayor Anthony Fahucci wrote that many residents are unable to afford the cost of broadband services, and those who do subscribe must “deal with inadequate speeds, service and reliability.”

According to the city’s initial proposal, Vineland suffers from high economic distress with some areas having unemployment rates as high as 9% and poverty rates as high as 19.2%.

The city says the incumbent providers have no plans to expand or enhance their services in Vineland. So, the city plans to tackle the problem itself by funding a $35-$40 million project to construct a municipally-owned fiber broadband network. It plans to construct a fiber ring around the city and make high-speed, competitively priced broadband available to every resident and business.

The city has begun the process by commissioning a feasibility study — conducted by the open access fiber company Bonfire — which found that “at least 42% of the city does not have access to viable, quality service.”

Lobbying group cries foul

Now, the non-profit group Taxpayers Protection Alliance Foundation (TPAF) claims the city is not being transparent about its process.

In a May press release TPAF complains that it sent an open records request to Vineland, seeking a copy of the feasibility study prepared by Bonfire, along with the raw data underlying the study and any additional documents regarding taxpayer financing for the potential project. But the city denied the open records request.

In its open records denial Vineland said the 54-page feasibility report could give an advantage to competitors or bidders if disclosed.

It’s not clear who TPAF represents in this matter because it doesn’t disclose its donors. But the group was flattering toward Comcast in its press release, saying “Comcast covers nearly 99% of Vineland with speeds of up to 2 Gbps.”

An in-depth article by Ars Technica last week noted that private ISPs, such as Comcast, Charter and others, often use dark money groups to attack municipal broadband.


According to TPAF, Bonfire was paid $221,400 for the feasibility study it provided to Vineland. 

TPAF stated that it has written extensively about government-owned networks (GONs) over the years and that consultants like Bonfire often offer turn-key services. “What typically happens is that cities request feasibility studies, the consultants tell them they should build a GON and then the city contracts with the consultant to build said GON,” stated TPAF.

Brian Hollister, CEO of Bonfire, told Fierce, “It’s up to the municipality to say how much control they want to have. Do they want to operate the network? Do they want to commercialize it? There could be an open access network where the municipality owns it but wholesales it to private businesses. We like that model a lot because it guarantees everyone gets served.”

He said the cost of capital for municipalities is often much lower than for private builders. Cities can often create public-private partnerships where the private company takes some of the responsibility.

Hollister said in the long run, a private entity can’t lower costs for its broadband services because it needs to continually increase profits. But a public-owned network, once it’s paid off, can reduce costs dramatically.

Seventeen U.S. states have laws against municipal broadband networks, according to Broadband Now. But New Jersey is not one of those states.