Unlike home consumers who chose Internet services from a standard menu, cities must negotiate their contracts with service providers, making it hard to determine which is getting the most bang for its buck.

What cities are paying for their Internet access and how fast their service is runs the gamut, with larger cities like Irvine shelling out $3,200 a month for blazingly fast Internet at city facilities while Garden Grove council members are set Tuesday to approve an $834 monthly rate for a connection that’s 10 times slower.

A number of factors come into play, including the speed of the connection, the city’s information technology infrastructure and what year the city entered into the contract, making it hard to say who is getting the better deal, said Helen Hall, IT manager for Fullerton.

“You can’t really get a true comparison of each city, because they might be doing things differently. It’s not apples to apples,” said Hall.

Fullerton pays different monthly rates for different sites across the city, from $300 a month for service at City Hall to a $2,000 network among the city’s fire stations, according to Hall.

Companies might also offer a discount of up to 30 percent for entering into a longer contract, said Hall.

Longer contracts have their downsides, said Charles Kalil, Garden Grove’s IT director. Garden Grove is paying $1,600 per month for a 20 megabits-per-second (Mbps) connection, the terms of a deal it signed with Time Warner in 2009.

Four years later, Time Warner cut its price nearly in half to $843 a month, a move that’s not uncommon as technology evolves and contractors seek to keep a city’s business. Garden Grove plans to spend the remaining $766 on an additional, back-up connection.

“Like everything in the [IT] business, prices come down over time, and we don’t like to go on longer contracts because prices keep coming down,” said Kalil.

Garden Grove’s $834 monthly rate is much higher than the $55 per month Time Warner charges residential customers for the same 20-megabit download speed.

But Garden Grove officials point out that the home connections have much slower upload speeds — in this case 2 Mbps — while the city gets 20 Mbps of upload bandwidth.

Meanwhile, Verizon offers a much faster connection for businesses — 75 Mbps downloads and 35 Mbps uploads — at a mere $120 per month.

Much of the difficulty in evaluating cities’ IT costs comes from a lack of basic cost information from service providers.

While it’s often easy to compare prices for home Internet service — Time Warner Cable, Verizon and AT&T all offer plan comparisons online — it’s far more difficult to determine the going rate for government Internet services.

For example, the government services websites for AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Cogent Communications, and Cox don’t list prices.

Connection speeds also vary widely between cities.

While Garden Grove operates at 20 megabits per second, Irvine has a vastly faster 200-megabit connection.

Irvine tends to use about 50 percent of its maximum bandwidth daily, with peaks going a little above the maximum, explained Tom Roberts, Irvine’s IT administrator. The connection costs a little more than $3,200 per month.

Irvine’s main service provider is TW Telecom, with a 30-megabit backup connection through AT&T.

Irvine also offers free public wireless Internet or WiFi in City Hall and several parks and plans to bring service to Northwood Community Park and ultimately the entire Orange County Great Park.

“We’re in the process of adding that to different parks as we increase bandwidth,” said Roberts, pointing out that park WiFi ultimately comes from the city’s main connection.

The city’s WiFi system can handled hundreds of users at once, Roberts said.

Meanwhile, Garden Grove does not provide free public WiFi at City Hall, although Internet access is provided during City Council meetings. According to Kalil, the council has yet to bring that issue to the table.

To many elected officials and members of the public, IT spending is complicated, and its results are not as noticed as road or sewer repairs.

“Someone would have to talk to me hard and long before I could vote on [wireless],” said Garden Grove Mayor Bruce Broadwater, noting that he doesn’t understand the mechanics of an Internet connection.

Here’s how different city Internet connections compare:

  • Irvine (population. 216,000): 200 Mbps at $3,232 per month.
  • Santa Ana (population. 329,000): 100 Mbps at $2,200 per month.
  • Garden Grove (population 173,000): 20 Mbps at $834 per month under Tuesday’s proposed contract.

Public wireless Internet services:

  • Irvine: All of City Hall and some city parks.
  • Santa Ana: City Council chambers and the Santa Ana Senior Center.
  • Garden Grove: City Council chambers during council meetings.

Representatives for Anaheim, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa and Westminster didn’t immediately have details of their Internet service Monday afternoon.

As technology advances, many homes may soon have faster download speeds than their own city hall.

The federal government has set a goal of more than 75 percent of American homes having affordable access to 50 Mbps internet by 2015.

Please contact Thy Vo directly at thyanhvo@gmail.com

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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