Cox fights municipal private wireless in Tucson

The city of Tucson, Arizona, has built a private wireless network to provide broadband to low-income households for free. But Cox Communications regularly sends emails to Tucson city council members, challenging the network and trying to persuade them to hire Cox for broadband expansion in the city.

Tucson city council member Steve Kozachik said he gets emails “fairly regularly” from Cox executives in the region.

The city originally set up its own private wireless network during the early days of the Covid pandemic because it realized children in low-income areas did not have access to high-speed broadband to do their homework.

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According to Kozachik, the city has spent about $4.3 million for the network and is serving broadband to about 1,000 households. It is considering expanding this private wireless network and possibly pursuing some smart city initiatives.

But Cox, which does not offer private wireless, would rather that the city partner with it to extend wired broadband to unserved areas.

In an email to Fierce, Lisa Lovallo, Cox’s market vice president of Tucson, said, “We share the city of Tucson’s goal of increasing broadband adoption and access in our communities. The city spent $5.5 million and has only connected a few hundred households. To bridge the digital divide effectively, we must work together.” (Editor's note: it's unclear why the discrepancy in cost between $4.3 million and $5.5 million).

Kozachik said he’s happy to hear what Cox has to offer, and he’s even invited Cox representatives to city council meetings. But he said the company uses a lot of ambiguous language, making it unclear exactly what broadband speeds it offers and which low-income areas it’s willing to upgrade or expand to.

For example, Kozachik said at first Cox said it could offer 10 Mbps to households in some underserved areas, and the city council responded that its private wireless network could do better than that with 50 Mbps download speeds. "Then Cox said it could offer 50 Mbps," said Kozachik. “And we said, ‘why didn’t you say that in the beginning?’”

In an email to Fierce, Cox upped the ante even further. It said, “We can deliver internet speeds up to 1 Gig for residential properties we have access to in our service area.”

Kozachik said, “But at what cost? The people we’re trying to service with our CARES dollars can’t pay $100 per month for internet.”  He also questioned Cox’s wording of: “properties we have access to in our service area.” He said, “We’re trying to find areas that Cox is not serving.”

RELATED: Tucson CIO specifies biggest ‘pain point’ of private wireless

Kozachik said he doesn’t want to “throw out the work we have done.” The city is helping low-income kids and families who didn’t previously have access to decent internet service. While he’s willing to listen to Cox and other providers that present a good business model, he said, “I’m very skeptical of the fact they didn’t step up to the plate until they recognized we had a funding stream.”

Another council member Paul Cunningham said the downside of working with Cox is that the city would be contributing to the cost of the infrastructure but wouldn’t own it.

Cox’s perspective

Aside from the 1,000 homes in poor neighborhoods that the city is serving with private wireless, Cox seems concerned about the city expanding into other areas of Tucson and introducing competition.

In an email the company said, “Cox has already invested in building and maintaining a Gig-enabled network in the city of Tucson, including areas where the city is proposing to build a new, overlapping city-owned and maintained network. For areas we do not currently serve, we are always looking for opportunities and collaborative local partnerships.”

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Some of the talking points Cox has made to city council members include:

  • Municipalities shouldn’t compete with the private sector.
  • The city will have a hard time maintaining a network.
  • Cox didn’t get to bid on the project.

Roger Timmerman, who is the executive director of the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) Fiber group, said incumbents will fight tooth and nail to quash any new competition, even in areas they haven't previously shown much interest in. UTOPIA Fiber is a municipal fiber group of 11 Utah cities that joined together in 2004 to deploy fiber to the home (FTTH) networks.

Timmerman said UTOPIA has “been through it all” with incumbents. “They don’t want anything to oppose them,” he said. “They feel the most profitable path forward is the status quo.” He said from the perspective of incumbents, they’ve made investments, and they’ve got customers. The best thing financially is to get revenue without making more investments.

Change on the horizon

The entire landscape and business logic for broadband in the U.S. could be on the very brink of change. Today, the U.S. Senate passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which includes $65 billion for broadband to close the digital divide.

RELATED: Telecom groups hail Senate passage of U.S. infrastructure deal

If the infrastructure bill goes on to become law, incumbents, along with smaller upstarts and municipalities, are likely to benefit from these funds. Then perhaps incumbents won’t spend so much of their time trying to fight well-intended municipal broadband efforts to help underserved communities.