Who’s driving your broadband bus?

school bus

Want to control your broadband as a community? Then you you have to own the process that determines how the technology is used. An article in Friday’s Kansas City Star puts a fine point on that assertion by showing how the public interest could fall by the wayside when a community does not own that process.

To be clear, community ownership and local government ownership do not have to be one and the same. But using Google Fiber’s planned gigabit fiber-to-the-home network in Kansas City as an example, corporate ownership of a network means community interests may not always win out.

Connecting for Good, a Kansas City local nonprofit, and the Rosedale Development Association teamed up to propose the idea of a Wi-Fi co-op that would tap into Google Fiber to provide Internet connectivity for Rosedale, a low-income community. Rosedale has no library or central community center that might otherwise act as a broadband hub.

The issue isn’t about the merits of the co-op since it’s actually just a concept for now. It’s not about the fact that Google pretty much slammed the door on the idea before the group could even develop a specific proposal (that’s a separate discussion). What’s really at issue here is that if communities are not holding the driving wheel and they don’t own or at least rent the vehicle, they are ultimately a passenger in someone else’s ride. At some point, the needs of the network owner could trump the needs of the community.

Communities that do not have the financial resources, legal latitude or political will for local government or the public utility to own the network must rely on alternative sources to fund and/or run the network. With those alternatives come trade offs – how much control does a community have over the business of using broadband to transform communities versus how much control the entity has that brings cash, management and maybe ownership of the infrastructure.

Blair Levin, National Broadband Plan architect and driving force behind Gig.U, responding via Twitter to an article about control versus capital states “there is definitely a tension that happens between communities and partners that needs to be addressed.” John Brown, CEO of CityLink Telecommunications told Gigabit Nation this week that communities have to do a great job crafting the deals they strike with private sector companies if broadband is to deliver the benefits communities expect.

Fort Wayne, Ind. entered into a public private partnership with Verizon to bring fiber connectivity to residents. However, Verizon sold its FIOS assets to Frontier.  Frontier promptly raised rates 46 percent on subscribers’ TV services and introduced $500 installation charges, effectively neutering fiber’s progress there. Gary Evans, CEO of Hiawatha Broadband Communications, which partners with several municipal governments, believes that strong legal contracts can protect communities in this kind of scenario.

Private companies provide only some of the challenges. Recently, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order directing relevant agencies to lay conduit in the ground anytime transportation or other public works programs result in digging up the ground. It further directs agencies to work with state governments to help them streamline right of way and other rules to support his “Dig Once” mandate. An automatic win for cities and counties? No.

Communities have to own this process as well, actively inserting themselves into negotiations, rule-making and program implementations. Otherwise, the Feds and the statehouse can create procedures beneficial to them, but not so much for local communities. For example, Brown says, “Mayors should take the lead in putting rules in place that mandate public works projects be publicized and all interested parties be given 90 days to respond with their intent to lay conduit and fiber with open access clearly a requirement.”

The bottom line is, every community that accepts money, materials and support from within or outside of the community need to deal upfront with the tradeoffs between capital and control of the process – the business of broadband. Understand that acceptance has a price. Manage that cost, your constituents’ expectations and your broadband plans accordingly.

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