Six Ways To Make Community Broadband a Reality in Your Town
Communities across the country are initiating publicly-owned broadband networks to offer fast, reliable and affordable internet service. But, how do you know if a publicly-owned network is right for your city or town?
We asked Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and William “Billy” Ray of Glasgow Electric Plant Board to join us and answer one simple question: Is establishing a broadband network really a feasible project for local governments to take on? They answered with a resounding (and predictable), “YES!, But…”
Here’s the short list of six ways to make a community broadband network happen in your city or town. Listen to the call recording below and read through the notes to find even more great advice from Chris and Billy.
1. Get Off on the Right Foot
Community Broadband Networks have been most successful in places with:
__ More than 5,000 people (if you have less, think about a regional network).
__ Demonstrated community support or strong will from a public entity.
__ Commitment to the long term. Remember that even after you initiate service, you still need to serve customers and have a plan for system upgrades and maintenance.
2. Categorize Broadband Under “Essential”
Talk to Chris or Billy about the financial return on investment (ROI) for a municipal network, and you can almost hear them cringe. It’s not that they don’t see the value in a well-run and well-managed system (heck, the network in Glasgow out-competed a major private company), it’s that an exclusive focus on direct benefits misses the boat. Chris makes the point with an easy analogy, “As an individual I can live without electricity, but as a community without electricity we’d really struggle. The same is true for broadband.”
Does everyone need fast, affordable and reliable internet service? Absolutely not. But, we’ve decided as a country that all our communities deserve the opportunity to thrive. We all benefit when a community, even a small one, has excellent internet access because the people living there are more productive, they come up with great ideas, and they purchase products from the rest of us.
What does it mean to understand broadband as essential for our communities? It means recognizing that the indirect benefits add just as much value as the direct returns. It’s about focusing on the future, and a community’s potential. And, it’s acknowledging that local governments have a role in owning and overseeing how broadband is supplied.
3. Get Fiber in the Ground
Chris advocated for fiber-optic cable as the technology of choice because fiber is the most “future-proof” option for broadband. Ever notice that it takes forever to upload a large file, but a similar file will download in mere seconds? That’s because cable and DSL weren’t designed for two-way communication, so they had to be re-engineered for the internet. Fiber is different - it makes two-way communication a breeze, so efforts aren’t going into developing new technologies for wired internet, but instead to making fiber even better.
Unlike DSL and cable, fiber is allows for user to be producers as much as consumers of online content, which means positive gains for active citizenship. Think of the potential for citizen journalism - uploading a podcast isn’t a struggle on a fiber network. Citizen scientists can contribute large datasets to global databases. Budding social entrepreneurs can share their story with the world through video.
Enough with the technical talk, just try it for yourself. Go to speedtest.net and compare your download and upload speeds. If you’re on cable, DSL, or dial-up you’ll notice a substantial difference.
How can communities get fiber in the ground to support a community network? Create a plan for where fiber needs to go, and how much is needed. Establish a “dig once” policy to encourage fiber installation during road construction or sewer installations. When opportunities arise, place conduit under bridges, overpasses, intersections, railroad right-of-way, and other places that can be complicated to cross. You’ll need to do some research and talk to a few experts to get the technical part correct, but this resource from CTC Technology and Energy is a great place to start.
4. Think Creatively About Funding
It’s no secret that putting fiber in the ground isn’t free or even cheap. But, you might be surprised that many municipal broadband networks have been built without the use of taxpayer dollars.
Santa Monica, California was able to pay for large portions of their network through savings from avoided costs. Imagine your city or town’s budget - what does it cost to connect smart traffic signals, to ensure quality internet access for anchor institutions like schools and libraries, to provide telecommunications for government staff? Those expenses add up quickly! When it ended expensive lease agreements for access to private lines, Santa Monica generated $400,000 in annual savings. That savings was reinvested right back into the community network, which cost around five to seven million dollars to build over the course of 15 years (we’ll do the math for you…that’s just about $400,000 per year).
Glasgow, Kentucky utilized revenue bonds to pay for its network. Revenue bonds aren’t tied to the tax system, but instead sold to private investors who expect the network to succeed based on its business plan. In Alabama, Auburn Essential Services funded its community network with interdepartmental loans. After borrowing $2.5 million from Auburn Electric, the network was cash-flow positive within seven months.
Find more about financing community networks in this fact sheet from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
5. Take Wireless for a Spin
If your first thought when hearing about municipally owned broadband is, “No way. My city will never do that!”, take matters into your own hands and establish a wireless community network. While wireless networks aren’t the best solution for providing high-quality access to a whole community, they can be a start for increasing connectivity and creating local shared networks.
Thanks to Josh Breitbart of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute for chiming in on the call. He introduced the Commotion Wireless program, which includes everything you need to know about conducting outreach, engaging residents, and learning the technical side of installing a wireless mesh network. Wireless mesh networks allow devices to connect directly to each other without going through a centralized point. A comprehensive toolkit for using the Commotion model is available at commotionwireless.net.
6. You Say You Want a Revolution? Advocate for a Resolution.
Whether your city is thinking about municipal broadband or not, you can still be active in supporting opportunity for community-owned networks. Advocate for a community resolution in support of local authority - there are many example resolutions from cities including Ammon, Idaho and Moultrie, Georgia. Or, take a tip from Lexington, Kentucky’s playbook and urge your city or town to incorporate language in franchise agreement renewals that requires low-cost broadband access or at least access to use of poles in the public right-of-way for future public broadband.
Chris and Billy pointed out that many people aren’t happy with their current internet provider, and while we’re all too happy to complain to friends, family and comment boards, we rarely think to tell our mayor. If you’re passionate about bringing better internet to your community, air your complaints to decision-makers. Attend board meetings and call your elected officials so community leaders know what people want.
If you missed hearing Chris and Billy live on the call, make sure you listen to the recording. Chris and Billy covered a broad range of questions related to Community Broadband Networks, and even took on such complicated topics as the birth of reality TV and the invention of “infotricity.”
Listen to the call recording below and read the call notes.