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Summary:

Studying the more than 150 successful community broadband networks (see map), and listening to mayors of cities that are driving significant innovations with broadband, a serious question comes to mind. Has Kansas City taken full ownership of the business of broadband? Communities nationwide with broadband hopes […]

Studying the more than 150 successful community broadband networks (see map), and listening to mayors of cities that are driving significant innovations with broadband, a serious question comes to mind. Has Kansas City taken full ownership of the business of broadband? Communities nationwide with broadband hopes should ask the same question of their efforts.

We often read about the delays and uncertainties of Google’s actions while Kansas City constituents undertake many activities to foster innovation and find the “killer app.”  But will they and other communities become like Philadelphia and other cities whose broadband dreams were thwarted after they turned the initiative over to private-sector companies?

Owning the physical network and providing highspeed Internet access is a business. But “the business of broadband” is that process by which communities use the technology as a tool to improve economic development, transform education and expedite healthcare delivery. Owning this process, whether or not you own the physical infrastructure and services, is how communities reap significant broadband benefits.

To inject national perspective and create something of a benchmark to measure the city’s progress, here are “7 Habits of Highly Effective Owners of the Business of Broadband.”

1. Have a broadband champion. Usually one person, a Lead Cat Herder if you will, should be a key force uniting and driving community stakeholders to achieve broadband’s promised benefits. It’s ok if a group shares leadership responsibilities, but to maximize the effort, one local person should be the project champion.

Several years ago, “It got so people would see me coming and try to get away because they knew I was going to talk their ear off about broadband,” says Dan Speer, Pulaski, Tenn.’s broadband champion. He’s now hailed as the primary reason Pulaski shares the Broadband Winner’s Circle with its bigger neighbor Chattanooga. Research a broadband success story and you’ll find they succeeded largely due to their champion.

2. Establish a single purpose. Santa Monica, CA developed their fiber network initially to replace the city government’s aging data and voice communications systems. The savings were so significant the city could afford to expand the network citywide to serve government and local businesses. Chattanooga’s initial network goal was to modernize and enhance how electricity is delivered to business customers, an improvement collectively worth millions to local companies. Danville, VA’s network was initiated to tackle the city’s 19 percent unemployment rate.

Identify one broadband goal that is significant enough by itself to cost justify much of the network’s expense. It may not be sexy, or viewed as a “killer app.” This singleness of purpose launches the network and provides a foundation for future success. Hundreds of worthwhile applications will follow.

3. Do a thorough needs assessment. Kansas City’s day-long community-wide brainstorming session was a critical early step. Follow this with multiple assessments, financial analysis and planning efforts within various constituency groups (business, education, healthcare, nonprofits, etc.). The Cape Cod region in Massachusetts and Chattanooga, TN were planning for over a year before the 2009 broadband stimulus. This is how communities drive technology for maximum impact. A major grant or a benefactor such as Google accelerates the drive, but progress doesn’t stop if the benefactor doesn’t deliver as expected.

4. Determine how to financially sustain the network. The needs assessment should identify who’s going to subscribe to, or invest in, both the network and the business of broadband. The most awesome broadband technology won’t mean jack unless communities turn identified needs into grants, subscriber fees, donations, investments and so on.

5. Have a solid marketing plan. One project leader recently recruited to run a network project said “It’s clear these folks wrote a great application that won stimulus money. But it’s also clear that when they wrote it two and a half years ago no one really knew how they were going to market the thing.”

Awkward (panicked) is that moment when a community realizes they’re not getting providers to deliver last-mile Internet services to constituents because no one fully understands how to market, when to market and to whom. Relying solely on the private sector companies that owned “muni” wireless networks to also build market demand got Philadelphia, Portland, Ore. and many other cities in trouble. The community has to drive much of the marketing in partnership with providers.

6. Own the relationship with private sector companies. Or at least own half the relationship. Private companies have needs. The community has needs. Sometimes, these needs conflict. If the community has not negotiated a partnership that protects the community’s ability to use/leverage the network to meet its broadband needs, many of these needs will remain unmet.

7. Demand measurement and accountability. If the needs assessment and planning are done properly, it becomes evident how broadband progress should be measured. Don’t be shy in holding stakeholders, project leaders, vendors and others accountable for reaching benchmarks and on-going successes.

It’s necessary to have businesses help communities in any number of ways. But a community’s success in maximizing the technology depends on stakeholders owning the business of broadband.

Craig Settles is a consultant who helps organizations develop broadband strategies, host of radio talk show Gigabit Nation and a broadband industry analyst. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) or via his blog.

  1. Craig – awesome piece.

    So much so that it inspired me ot write up a response. Point by point.

    http://marc.digitalcitymechanics.com/2012/06/25/new-kinds-of-ppp-open-letter-response-to-craig-settles/

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    1. Agreed, really interesting points. Unfortunately here in the UK, the infrastructure for good quality broadband is just not there and fibre optic services are only available to a few.

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  2. Marc,

    It took me a few minutes reading your comments to figure out that in my article I should have established up front that when I say “community,” I don’t mean it is always the local government that is the owner of the network.

    In my recent analysis report that explores alternative ways to fund broadband networks (http://bit.ly/KAP16I), the first segment advocates for creating one of several organizational structures to operate the network that is run by stakeholders (citizens, businesses, institutions, etc). I recommend these specifically as a way to remove much of the political fallout that often comes when government is the owner, while ensuring that the network infrastructure remains in constituents’ hands. Local government can have a role, they can be one of the anchor “tenants” on the network.

    If you read this section of the report, you see that some of those viewpoints in my column above you disagree on, we actually have in common.

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  3. What happens when companies like at&t get their laws passed that effectively kill broadband projects? Laws are being passed by state governments like in NC. Similar bills are being passed in SC, as well as other states.

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    1. BOBBY VASSALLO Tuesday, June 26, 2012

      I have complained many times how Colorado has done this very thing. Laws were passed to keep all competition from taking hold. Local governments, underserved by the very same incumbent carrier, were outlawed from creating their own networks, delivering broadband to citizens. I didn’t know it was done in NC.

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  4. I found exactly the same, folk would avoid me in the street because they were fed up with me trying to ‘make’ them digital. Now its the other way round. Folk are getting “IT” and want help to get connected. In rural areas this is extremely difficult unless the whole community join together. People Power. Power to the People.

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  5. BOBBY VASSALLO Tuesday, June 26, 2012

    As usual, Craig Settles is right on the money. We have seen many cities not only fail to support broadband networks, but literally fight against them. Forgetting corruption for a moment, one such city network we built was killed by a councilwoman who did not want porn in her community.
    You never know what’s going to happen when these networks go up. Cities must support and also become anchor tenants or these projects suffer, invariably. It is difficult, especially in rural areas where leaders haven’t yet obtained an email account.

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  6. To me, the public sector should focus on demand aggregation to help the business case that the private sector partner needs to have. Nothing is free. Without profit these PPPs will sink because the partners will not be incented to continue investing. Turn “if we build it they will come” into something that makse sense: “here they are, not let’s build it”

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  7. Michael Elling Sunday, July 29, 2012

    Google is implementing a horizontal model, and understands well the marginal cost across all layers and boundary points. This feels like 1996 all over again, when digital wireless came along and prices dropped 90%+. Consumption exploded and the rest is history. The only problem and key difference is that wireline growth is linear or stair-step function whereas wireless is immediately (or nearly) everywhere. Therefore, different marketing and demand assumptions; but good to see marginal costs getting reintroduced into the equation after competition died because of the US government: Telecom Act of 1996, special access deregulation 2002 and death of equal access 2004.

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