Community Broadband Sticker Shock? Try a Different Approach

By Trevor Jones, OTELO   www.otelo.com

Community Broadband Sticker Shock recently hit Cambridge City Hall.

Recently, I worked with a City Councilor in Cambridge, Massachusetts to try and help the Council overcome a severe case of community broadband sticker shock.  It seems that the town had hired a consultant who had submitted a $200 million estimate for a city-wide fiber to the home network without first understanding what the City’s appetite would be for such expenditure – or, indeed, if the network being proposed was really necessary to achieve the City’s main goals.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much of my career selling things, but I would never deliver a proposal without knowing if my client had the budget for it – especially if my proposal was overkill for my customer’s pain points.  Indeed, the consultant’s entire approach seems backward to me, as if they knew that the answer was a town-owned fiber network before they asked a single question.

Cambridge’s Pain Points

At least for the couple of people I spoke with in Cambridge, their main interests lay in two specific areas:

  1. Digital Equity – Their main concern was in ensuring that residents of the City’s low-income areas and housing projects had access to affordable High-Speed Internet. Comcast’s Internet Essentials was the only option for these customers, and consensus was that it wasn’t adequate to the needs of families.
  2. Competition – The City was also interested in having a competitive marketplace for Internet access. They felt this would keep prices down, give the customers choices, and improve the quality of service.

At the same time, the city had a lot of logistical questions about what it would mean to own and operate a utility, given that unlike many Massachusetts towns and cities, they didn’t currently have a municipal electric utility, or a real desire to start one.

Solutions to Specific Problems

Of course, a city-owned fiber to the home network would address both of the key pain points, but there are other solutions that can address the city’s primary concerns for less money and minimize the need for the city to take too large a role in operating the network.

  • MTU-NDU Networks – The city’s most immediate concern was in providing something faster than Comcast’s Internet Essentials product to low income households. To the extent that these low income families are in city-owned housing projects and/or other forms of apartment buildings, a Multi-Tenant building strategy could cover a significant part of this population for a relatively small cost.  In some cases, city-owned fiber is already in the building.  In these cases it should be quite cost effective to provide Internet to the building over this fiber, and distribute to tenants using existing wiring and Very high bit rate DSL (VDSL), which is capable of delivering speeds in excess of 100mbps over short distances.
  • Hybrid Networks – In many cases, fiber-fed wireless networks can cost effectively extend the reach of new or existing fiber networks. One example of this would be to work outward from the existing fiber-fed buildings in the previous example using point-to-point wireless technologies to connect other multi-tenant buildings to the hub site.  This is the model currently used by NetBlazr to provide competitive access in Boston and Newark.  Alternately, point-to-multipoint wireless transceivers can be pole mounted or mounted to buildings to serve multiple single family homes in a “fiber to the pole” deployment.
  • Dig Once – Cambridge didn’t want to operate a network, but did want to promote a competitive marketplace for broadband. One solution that could promote this goal over the long term while requiring minimal construction costs and management headaches would be for the city to bury conduit whenever the streets are open and operate an open access conduit system, similar to the system currently operated successfully in Lincoln, NE.  City owned conduit could be leased to ISP’s interested in providing competitive broadband services, greatly reducing construction costs for market entrants.
  • Local Improvement Districts – Another way of delivering competitive services over the middle to long term to residents who can afford to pay would be the creation of Local Improvement Districts, which residents could join by paying their portion of connection costs up-front or by a direct 20-year assessment on their property. The resulting network could be operated by the city as an open access dark fiber network, with the fibers leased to ISP’s that wish for service in these districts.  It reduces public exposure to risk by guaranteeing the recovery of construction costs and giving people a strong incentive to retain their existing service.  At the same time, because it is an opt-in solution it greatly reduced the threat of political opposition; those who don’t want the service don’t have to pay.  Ammon, ID is perhaps the best known example of this.

Avoid Community Broadband Sticker Shock in your Plan

These are just a few strategies for solving the specific problems your community faces in situations where you can’t afford, or win support for, a town or city wide broadband network.  A combination of strategies may in fact be the best solution for the mix of problems you have, so make sure you clearly understand your goals first, and find a partner who is willing to work with you to design a mix of solutions to meet your goals.  If your community is facing a broadband challenge – I’d love to talk with you about it.  Please contact me.

I’d like to thank Chris Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance for his help with my presentation to Cambridge and by extension, this blog post.