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Mayor unveils plan to expand high-speed internet

With access to high-speed internet concentrated among its more affluent areas, the city of Memphis has entered an ambitious $750 million partnership with French company Meridiam to expand access throughout the city, including some of its most underserved communities.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland paid an afternoon visit to the Memphis City Council on Tuesday (Sept. 26) during its executive session to deliver the news. 

“I said this a few years ago when we began this journey and I’ll say it again. Providing every home with top-quality internet service is as important today to the quality of life and the economic development of Memphis as was providing every home with electricity 100 years ago,” said Strickland.

Currently, only about 30 percent of Memphis has access to fiber-optic internet.  Most of this is located along the east-west-running Poplar Corridor. The remainder of Memphis is lagging.

The deal dovetails with the proposed Smart City Fiber Optic Cable ordinance, which would allow right-of-way fees to be waived and permits reduced if it achieves the “smart city” designation.

The ordinance was introduced during the council meeting. It requires the system to reach 60 percent of the city’s businesses and homes. It would need to meet the same benchmark in availability to low-income households.

A third of the 6,000 connection points would be in census tracts with households that earn below Memphis’ median income, which is about $32,000.

Memphis also would gain the right to access “at least 12 dark fiber strands” in every cable for at least 40 years. Dark Fiber are strands unused by the provider. 

To obtain and keep the designation, percentage milestones would need to be achieved. They could also be subject to change via ordinance. It also allows other companies to add to the system.

Word of the partnership with Meridiam, however, drew a quick rebuke via text message from an Alexandria, Virginia-based political action committee called “A Better Tomorrow for Tennessee.”

“Why is Mayor Strickland trying to sneak through a costly, unneeded broadband plan on his way out the door when crime and jobs should be the focus?” read the message. A phone number for the Memphis City Council was included.

Strickland said the PAC is tied to one of the city’s current internet suppliers.

With speeds of up to 940 MB per second, fiber optic cable provides some of the fastest commercially available internet speeds. It is also less susceptible to severe weather, which reduces outages. It is made from hair-like strands of glass.

Meridiam will bear the brunt of the costs. The global asset and finance manager specializes in large-scale infrastructure projects. In addition to North America, it has investments in Europe and Africa.

The city, meanwhile, will be on the hook for about $7 million. The money will be spent helping low-income citizens gain access. Another $15 million will go towards purchasing a third of the fiber’s capacity. It would be paid out over 40 years.

The infrastructure project is expected to last six to seven years. It will begin early next year.


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