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Summary:

Last week I visited two Kansas Cities – in Kansas and Missouri – on a broadband site visit. When I went to Chattanooga, Tenn., I got an “after” picture of what communities can do with a gigabit. The Kansas City trip was about figuring out the “before.”

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Last week, I spent three days in the two Kansas Cities – in Kansas and Missouri – on a broadband site visit. These two cities led the pack of more than a thousand cities to become the home of a Google gigabit network. First announced was Kansas City, Kan.’ award. And then a few weeks later, Kansas City, Mo. was anointed the second winner.

When I went to Chattanooga, Tenn., I painted an “after” picture of what communities can do with a gigabit. The Kansas City trip was about painting a “before” picture for all those wanting to know how to get started once you resolve the question of how to pay for a network. Communities – broadband stimulus winners and others – really need some reliable guideposts.

They also need a good handle on how to deal with the early days of a public private partnership. As with romantic relationships, there’s the potential for the starry-eye exhilaration in the first weeks to mask potential flaws in one’s partner that are best addressed early. Sure, Google’s an awesome partner to have, but don’t forget it’s hard work making a relationship work, especially when your partner is an industry giant. Here’s how smart cities can educate themselves on the opportunities and challenges they face when they get the broadband partnership they covet.

Know the score going in. The Google gigabit deal is a public-private partnership, not some digital version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” When executed properly, all the partners win. Communities acquire infrastructure, resources, services and other goodies that contribute to the public good. The private sector partners do these deals to boost revenue and market share while scoring Good Corporate Citizen points. Don’t underestimate the importance of the former, or over inflate the role of the latter.

When executed poorly, these partnerships become cauldrons of seething animosity, busted budgets and crushed political careers. Constituents lose. Private-sector companies with good lawyers, not so much. Maximizing the positive requires “a strong definition of expectations,” observes Gary Evans, president and CEO of Hiawatha Broadband Communications, a service provider involved in several of these partnerships. “Any consultant can come in and design a great plan, but partners have to get inside of all of that and ask, what do we clearly believe we can accomplish?”

Google isn’t your only possible dance partner. Google is obviously big enough to turn the broadband world upside down. But if communities assess how Google benefits from the Kansas City deals, they can (and should) shop around and find other potential corporate partners with similar needs. That Google holds much close to its vest and forbids the Kansas Cities from saying a lot makes this difficult, of course, but we should learn more over the next few months.

The trick to enticing partners to this broadband dance is to find that sweet spot that gets marketing people quivering and investor relations executives swooning. Often the sweet spot is found in the application of the broadband technology.

For Corning, a glass and fiber maker, it made financial sense to fund a fiber network for the three counties surrounding its headquarters services because the broadband will contribute to a more productive telecommuting workforce and improve the company’s business operations. It’s  safe to assume that if the Kansas City gigabit test beds produce some killer app from which Google can make big bank through the widespread deployment of gigabit networks, many a city will find Santa Google coming to town. Your stakeholders may be able to convince a company such as FedEx Office that gigabit-enabled business communities could enable them to produce significantly more online printing and presentation-development revenues.

Success isn’t about luck; it’s about preparation. Google’s tight lid on communication leaves various Kansas City stakeholders and potential beneficiaries a little uncertain as to what steps to take to ensure they maximize the partnership. However, communities forming a public private partnership must have a clear roadmap for how they will make broadband a winner for their constituents. They also need to have a plan for how they will financially sustain the network should the private partner pick up one day and leave.

To understand the challenges that the Kansas Cities face in the preparation department, it’s helpful to break down the network development process into three rather broad categories: building out the network infrastructure; the network’s daily technical and business operations (signing up customers, service and support, network maintenance, etc.); and generating the outcomes from whatever services and applications run over the network such as economic development, digital inclusion, improved government services and so forth.

Of the three, Kansas City must own the third category: the outcomes. The Google application that 1,100 cities submitted asked, in essence, “What would you do with a gigabit?” Google can fund the buildout. They can hire engineering, technical and network operations experts who make the network hum. But the Kansas Cities have to plan and manage the process by which they deliver on those dreams expressed in their answers to the question, what can you do with a gigabit.

Cities should pull lessons from the preparations of communities such as Powell, Wyo., which planned its network for two years before getting bond financing. Or OpenCape, which did a similar amount of planning before submitting its broadband stimulus application that won a grant award. Kansas City, Kan., as evidenced in this interview, appears to have addressed planning beyond what the Google application required, while Kansas City, Mo. is moving quickly to put additional plans into place to supplement what went into its application.

Remember, the network’s design and the technology that goes into the actual infrastructure are decisions that should be driven by how you plan to use that technology on an ongoing basis to generate your desired benefits, not the other way around. How well your community adheres to this key principle determines its level of broadband success.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst, consultant and Co-Director of Communities United for Broadband and can be found at @cjsettles on Twitter.

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  1. Jerry Grasso Tuesday, July 5, 2011

    Love seeing Craig Settles providing insights here. I am surprised not to see any mention of Muni Wi-Fi projects being a roadmap for what ‘not to do’ in terms of successful private/public partnerships.

  2. Craig Settles Tuesday, July 5, 2011

    People surprisingly still get an attack of hives when the subject of muni WiFi comes up. Some vendors/ISPs go out of their way not to even whisper the subject lest there’s even a hint of association with “failure.” And I think communities likewise shy away from the discussion because they don’t want any local opponents to bring up the litany of failed projects to try to hang around their necks. Hmm, maybe someone should force folks to face their demons as the only way to become free of them :-)

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