Public Funding for Broadband: The ground has shifted … but not enough

Photo credit: Adams County Connected In preparing to present on a broadband funding panel at Gigabit Cities Live,   I researched funding sources for broadband networks, policies that incent investment, and how cities can “make-ready” infrastructure to streamline deployments. Then I realized, before we talk about how communities fund broadband networks, we need to ask why local governments are considering funding broadband networks?

The context in which we view broadband has changed.  The ground has shifted. Broadband is no longer considered an optional personal service; it is a fundamental community asset. Digital equity is table-stakes for economic and societal growth.

When did the ground shift in how we view broadband access?

The deployment of telephony services was guided by principles of universal access, shaped by regulation, and subsidized by Universal Service Funds. Yet, universal service principles were never applied to broadband. While traditional Internet service providers have been good community neighbors, carrier deployments have been guided primarily by shareholder ROI objectives.

When did funding broadband become a civic question instead of a corporate question?

Five initiatives reframed how we think about broadband:

  1. Wireless Philadelphiahelped us see digital inclusion as a community issue and invited CIOs to turn outward.
  2. BTOPincreased our focus on community anchors and demonstrated the power of public-private-partnerships.
  3. Google Fiberhelped communities realize they could invest community capital to incent broadband investment.
  4. Gigabit Squaredreminded us that if the network deal seems too-good-to-be-true, it probably is.  Communities need to invest.
  5. Chattanooga Gig –  showed that a community-wide investment in high-capacity access can drive community transformation.

1. Wireless Philadelphia – Digital inclusion is a community issue; CIOs turn outward.

Wireless Philadelphia (circa 2005) shifted the conversation about digital inclusion from one that focused solely on individuals to one that focused on communities. Then Philadelphia CIO, Dianah Neff, equated broadband access with neighborhood opportunities for economic development, education, and health and wellness. Philadelphia realized that the inequity in access didn’t just leave people behind, it left whole neighborhoods behind and the digital divide impeded the rollout of e-government services. While Wireless Philadelphia failed from a technology and business perspective, it pushed CIOs to turn outward to their communities and it helped us recognize that digital access effect neighborhoods and communities as a whole, not just individuals.

2. BTOP – Accentuates the value of connecting Community Anchor Institutions and sharpens focus on public private partnerships.

While the National Broadband Plan (2010) created an important framework for broadband availability, investment, adoption and use, the Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP) (2009) drove another shift in our thinking about broadband. BTOP required that all government-funded projects articulate public benefit and leverage partners. Prior to BTOP most broadband policies addressed residences and businesses; BTOP increased the focus on Community Anchor Institutions – highlighting the need for bandwidth at schools, libraries, health clinics, and other civic centers, and demonstrating that those connections build community capacity in a myriad of ways. BTOP also demonstrated the value of public private partnerships – partnerships that were anchored in federal and local investments.

3. Google Fiber – Cities want fiber; they are ready to put some community capital behind those plans.

Did anyone expect over 1100 cities to vie for Google Fiber? The overwhelming response to Google’s 2010 announcement of an experimental fiber-build helped cities realized that they could reevaluate their assets, regulations and policies and make broadband -friendly changes. They could streamline permitting, provide access to government fiber or conduit, and make “vertical assets” available for antennas. Responses included more than city stuff, they included broad letters of community support; in one case, passing a resolution to change the city name to Google. Google created new models for fiber deployment, requiring advanced signup in fiber-hoods and using fiber deployments to trial new advertising techniques. The huge response from cities made it clear that communities equated fiber infrastructure with future opportunities and that they were ready to invest community capital to get connected.

4. Gigabit Squared –  Investment is needed. Unrealistic dreams fail.

Projects like Gigabit Squared in Chicago and Seattle suffered from a failure to launch. Early wireless projects were unrealistically ambitious in promises for service quality and coverage. Plans for a quasi-cooperative fiber-build in Seattle and Chicago just didn’t pencil. Those projects offered cities “something for nothing.” With little city investment required, no requirements for anchor tenancy, these projects appeared “too good to be true.” They were. It takes investment to offer public broadband and we learn as much from our failures as we do from success – maybe more.

5. Chattanooga Gig –  Local investments in broadband can work.

Chattanooga Tennessee demonstrated that municipal fiber networks can profitably drive economic and societal benefit. Chattanooga is not the first city to offer municipal fiber, but other factors, including support from the FCC and commitments to use fiber as part of plans for community transformation have made Chattanooga the newest poster-child in the community broadband story. Having delivered fiber to every household, business and institution in the city, Chattanooga is now working to drive local innovation and economic development, improve educational outcomes, achieve digital equity and enable smart grid energy efficiencies.

Are we there yet? No.

It is not uncommon for cities and states to provide huge tax incentives and investments to attract and retain businesses to shore up and expand economic opportunity or to invest millions in ballparks and stadium projects. The pervasive community and economic benefit of universal broadband will outstrip those narrow projects.

Our policy frame has shifted –but it has not shifted far enough. Funding strategies need to recognize that “best effort” broadband coverage is not adequate. Communities with inclusive economic and societal goals need aggressive and inclusive broadband funding and development plans.

Photo credit: Adams County Connected

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