Ted Smith hears the question all the time: When will Louisville finally have affordable broadband Internet? Smith, the chief of civic innovation at Louisville Metro Government, doesn’t have an answer. And in a way, he could ask the same question of Louisville’s residents.

Ted Smith, chief of civic innovation
Ted Smith, chief of civic innovation

This is because while Louisville residents say they want high-speed Internet, they haven’t shown up at government functions in the sort of numbers needed to make it happen.

“When I went to (a) telecommunications hearing locally, all those people who said they cared about fiber (connectivity), none of them showed up,” he says. “That’s when you actually need to get on the field and show our Metro Council this is important.”

Which is why Smith was talking to me, at his request, about the current state of Louisville’s high-speed Internet progress. Smith is concerned Louisville is caught in a bit of a no-man’s land when it comes to getting high-speed, residential Internet, and the public needs to get out the pitchforks in force to make it happen. “These kind of things don’t succeed without demonstrating demand,” he says.

Metro government can’t do it alone, because it has, quite literally, no money to invest. No money to build towers, no money to put in lines. It’s doing all it can without money, Smith says, which so far has meant it’s opened its doors to all the companies that want to do the hard work of laying the infrastructure, and take on all the financial risk. Eventually it would mean speeding along all permits and making sure they are able to proceed with as little regulatory interference from the city as possible.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 3.34.00 PMThere currently are two companies that have gotten franchise agreements to bring fiber connectivity to Louisville: BluegrassNet and Sifi Networks Louisville.

Smith says Sifi is is raising money and going through the engineering process to find out what resources to deploy in the city’s urban services district. “Sifi is contemplating investing $150 (million) in our community,” he says. “There is a lot of engineering planning to be done over hundreds of miles of deployment … Like the Ohio River Bridges, it is a big binary decision dependent on what it will likely cost when the engineering planning is done and what the revenue customer situation looks like.”

Smith says BluegrassNet will lay fiber if and when a business case comes together that makes financial sense, but they haven’t started yet.

logo-smallSometimes there’s a lack of urgency on the part of the city’s reps as well. Smith says one Metro Council session with Sifi got sidetracked into a conversation about bike paths, but he declined to elaborate.

Why is high-speed Internet important? Smith believes it makes Louisville far more competitive for certain kinds of businesses the city wants to attract — businesses that are on the cutting edge of their fields, that use a lot of bandwidth but don’t necessarily have thousands of dollars a month to spend on high-speed Internet service.

And if Louisville doesn’t make a friendly environment for these kinds of companies, other cities will.

Our lack of such connectivity has real-world consequences and could be one reason why, for example, Louisville didn’t land high-end eyeglass design firm Warby Parker, which went to Nashville instead.

Smith won’t say this is the only reason why Louisville became an also-ran, but he believes it’s one. “There was a list of things that company had in mind, I’m sure this was on the list,” he says.

Lack of affordable high-speed Internet connectivity would be an issue for Warby Parker and firms of their ilk, because they have cultures where people work off-site, maybe even from home, and have to send work back to HQ via the ‘net. If the files are large enough, and for a design firm they could be quite large indeed, this could create some real problems if there’s not enough bandwidth.

What might surprise some is that while Louisville lacks high-speed Internet for residents, larger, more centralized businesses currently have access to roughly the same sort of connectivity they might get anywhere else. The reason is because they have the means to pay for it, whereas smaller businesses or individuals don’t.

What about Wi-Fi? Smith says it’s the technology of the future, but that future is still quite a ways off, perhaps years away. Louisville can’t sleep on working to get fiber-style high-speed connectivity simply because someday wireless will bring high-speed connections everywhere. And, anyway, there still needs to be lots of fiber laid in the ground leading up to the wireless towers.

The core of the problem is there is a breakdown in what he calls the last mile, meaning wiring each individual home. It’s simply too expensive. If Louisville became a so-called “Google Fiber” city, this would be taken care of, but the city’s been turned down by the search-engine firm time and again.

This leaves Louisville trapped. It’s too small a city to attract swarms of private firms competing for this business, a la Chicago. But it’s also too big to make the capital investment to lay the high-speed lines itself, such as has been done, with great fanfare, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The Chattanooga issue worries Smith. Louisville’s always had to contend with bigger cities, but now it’s at a risk to lose businesses to that Tennessee town, too, and other cities that follow Chattanooga’s lead. “It’s not a big city, but it’s got a big bark. It’s concerning,” he says.

It’s not hopeless. Smith says some cities have paid for high-speed lines via things like municipal bonds, as such lines are essentially utilities and can pay utility-like dividends for investors.

Also, the local option sales tax, which the General Assembly voted down, could be used to pay for these kinds of projects, even though it lost the first time out. “It’s back on the agenda for this session, and it’s back on the agenda for the next one if it doesn’t make it through this time,” he says.

Smith also holds out hope for the millennial generation’s more forward-looking leaders. He points to things like the ReSurfaced Project, which successfully converted an empty lot into a community gathering space, as evidence that Louisville is thinking more progressively and is less tech-averse.

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David Serchuk
David Serchuk is a staff writer at Insider Louisville. He is a former editor at Forbes.com, and an ex-reporter at Forbes magazine. He's written for NPR, CNBC.com, New York, Pittsburgh, Louisville and other publications named for places. He enjoys writing about business, music and other things as well.