Bloomington-Meridiam fiber-to-home internet deal: 3 public bodies, 3 meetings, 3 days

Now pending is a deal between the city of Bloomington and Meridiam, a Paris-based infrastructure company, that would build a fiber-to-the-home network offering symmetric 1-Gigabit service, reaching at least 85-percent of the city.

The image links to a dynamic map. (UG = underground; AE = aerial)

The city describes the deal in terms of a $50 million investment that Meridiam will make. Meridiam has made the arrangement contingent on a kind of “tax rebate” for the company, amounting to $14.4 million over 20 years.

Meridiam says the creation of the wholesale open-access network—after an initial 5-7 year period of exclusive operation by an as-yet-unnamed internet service provider (ISP)—would create about 10 new jobs, with a payroll of about $1.1 million.

Bloomington’s redevelopment commission (RDC) got the legal process started last week, when it voted 4-0 to approve a declaratory resolution.

For the deal to go through, three different public bodies will need to give approvals, at three separate meetings, which are set for Monday (plan commission), Tuesday (economic development commission), and Wednesday (city council) of this week.

The final vote, by the RDC, is set for July 5.

The plan commission’s 5:30 p.m Monday meeting features a resolution that says the plan commission finds that the RDC’s declaratory resolution and the economic development plan associated with it conform to the city’s comprehensive plan.

The finding by the plan commission is necessary under IC 36-7-14-16(a), which says that the plan commission has to determine “whether the resolution and the redevelopment plan conform to the plan of development for the unit and approve or disapprove the resolution and plan proposed;”

The “plan of development for the unit” is Bloomington’s comprehensive plan.

The plan commission’s approval of the resolution is not expected to be controversial, mostly because the proposal for the tax increment finance (TIF) allocation area is not defined in conventional geographic terms, like some collection of parcels where buildings might be constructed.

Instead, the area is defined in terms of the exact path of the conduit and fiber that Meridiam is planning to install. The web-like appearance of the area is what gives it the moniker “spider TIF.” Some of the installation is planned for underground, while other segments are proposed to be strung between utility poles.

Based on the preliminary shape file for the network, the roughly 347 miles of fiber would be about 62 percent underground: 130 miles of aerial fiber; and 217 miles of underground fiber.

The narrowness of conduit paths means that it won’t be straightforward for the plan commission to apply a conventional land-use analysis for the proposal’s conformance with the city’s comprehensive plan.

At its 4 p.m. Tuesday meeting, Bloomington’s five-member economic development commission (EDC) will be asked to approve a resolution finding that the proposal will serve public purposes, and benefit the health and general welfare of Bloomington.

In addition, the EDC’s resolution says that it “determines that the project will not have a material adverse competitive effect on any similar facilities already constructed or operating in or near the city.”

That finding about non-adverse competitive effect could get some pushback from existing ISP providers like Comcast, AT&T and Smithville. The question could reduce to what counts as a “similar” facility. Does “similarity” require that a network be 100-percent fiber, with none of it made up of cable? Does “similarity” require that it be an open-access network?

The five members of the EDC are each appointed by the mayor, with nominations for one seat apiece coming from the Bloomington city council and the Monroe County county council. The current membership of the EDC is: Matt Flaherty (city council); Geoff McKim (county council); Vanessa McClary; Malcolm Webb; and Kurt Zorn.

On Wednesday, at its regular 6:30 p.m. meeting, the city council will take up two different questions related to the Meridiam deal.

One is a resolution that essentially confirms the finding that the plan commission is expected to make on Monday. The other is an ordinance that authorizes the agreement that returns the personal property tax to be paid by Meridiam on its conduit and fiber to Meridiam for a 20-year period. That amount is expected to total around $14.4 million.

At the city council’s committee-of-the-whole meeting last week, the proposal got some pushback from councilmembers Dave Rollo and Ron Smith. They had both voted against the introduction of the legislation at the council’s regular meeting a week before the committee meeting.

Rollo questioned the transparency of the process. Rollo asked that the final master development agreement between Bloomington and Meridiam be made available to the council before its Wednesday vote.

Smith wanted to know why the city could not create a public model for the fiber network. Palo Alto, Bloomington’s sibling city, is pursuing such a public option.

By way of response, Bloomington IT director Rick Dietz said he thinks that Indiana’s General Assembly would enact laws against that kind of public utility, if Bloomington decided to pursue that option. Another consideration is that Palo Alto operates its own electric utility, which means that it doesn’t have to negotiate with a third party, like Duke Energy, to string fiber between utility poles.

At its committee meeting, only Jim Sims gave the proposal a firm yes in the straw poll. The other five “passed” on the vote. Not attending the committee-of-the-whole meeting were: Matt Flaherty, Kate Rosenbarger, and Steve Volan.

Provisional Map of Meridiam Network

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