Local Governments Win Cell Tower Supreme Court Case – For the Most Part

cell towerThe City of Roswell lost its case before the Supreme Court regarding cell phone tower approval on what some might describe as a mere technicality – but overall, local governments won. (Getty Images)

In T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell, the Supreme Court held 6-3 that the Telecommunications Act (TCA) requires local governments to provide reasons when denying an application to build a cell phone tower. The reasons do not have to be stated in the denial letter but must be articulated “with sufficient clarity in some other written record issued essentially contemporaneously with the denial,” which can include the council meeting minutes.

The Court agreed with the position in the State and Local Legal Center (SLLC)’s amicus brief that the reasons for a local government’s decision need not be in the same letter or document that denies the application, and that council meeting minutes can be a sufficient source for the reasons for the denial. The Court disagreed, however, with the SLLC’s argument that the council minutes need not be issued contemporaneously with the document denying the wireless provider’s application.

T-Mobile applied to construct a 108-foot cell tower in a residential zoning area. Two days after a council hearing on the application, where city councilmembers voted to deny the application and stated various reasons for why they were going to vote against it, Roswell sent T-Mobile a brief letter stating that the application was denied and that T-Mobile could obtain hearing minutes from the city clerk. Twenty-six days later the minutes were approved and published.

The TCA requires that a state or local government’s decision denying a cell tower construction permit be “in writing and supported by substantial evidence contained in a written record.”

The majority of the Court, in an opinion written by Justice Sotomayor, held that local governments have to provide reasons for why they are denying a cell tower application so that courts can determine whether the denial was supported by substantial evidence. The Court rejected, however, T-Mobile’s argument that the reasons must be set forth in a formal written decision denying the application instead of council meeting minutes because nothing in the TCA “imposes any requirement that the reasons be given in any particular form.” But the Court also held that, because wireless providers have only 30 days after an adverse decision to seek judicial review, the council meeting minutes setting forth the reasons have to be issued “essentially contemporaneous[ly]”with the denial.

The Court’s ruling that written minutes can meet the TCA’s “in writing” requirement is favorable to local governments, many of which routinely compile meeting minutes regardless of whether a cell tower application is being considered. But the Court’s requirement that a local government issue a denial letter and minutes at more or less the same time will be new to many local governments, and, as Chief Justice Roberts points out in his dissenting opinion, “could be a trap for the unwary hamlet or two.”

Following this decision, local governments should not issue any written denial of a wireless siting application until they (1) set forth the reasons for the denial in that written decision, or (2) make available to the wireless provider the final council meeting minutes or transcript of the meeting at which the action was taken.

The Roberts’ Court has been frequently characterized as “pro-business.” Justice Roberts’ dissent belies that viewpoint.  His opinion repeatedly refers to T-Mobile’s savvy and culminates in this sarcastic assessment of how T-Mobile likely suffered no harm by receiving the minutes after the denial: “T-Mobile somehow managed to make the tough call to seek review of the denial of an application it had spent months and many thousands of dollars to obtain, based on a hearing it had attended.”

Tim LayJessica Bell, and Katharine Mapes of Spiegel & McDiarmid in Washington, D.C., wrote the SLLC’s brief which was joined by the National League of Cities, the United States Conference of Mayors,  the National Association of Counties, the International City/County Management Association, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association.

Lisa Soronen bio photoAbout the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Citizen Engagement Means More than Just Voting


Democracy. In the very root of the word is the notion that it is the people who rule. It is engrained in all Americans that in our country, government is by the people and for the people. Of course, for this to be true, the people must be involved. Citizens must be actively engaged in every level of government if our country is to run as we believe it should.

In recent studies by the National Conference on Citizenship, it has unfortunately been discovered that this ideal is not being met. Citizens are not showing the levels of civic engagement that democracy requires, and that our cities need in order to flourish.

In one study on South Carolina, it was found that while the state’s citizens ranked highly for “traditional forms of political involvement” (voting in national elections and registering to vote), they were near the bottom of state rankings in other, more subtle forms of civic engagement: boycotting products, contacting elected officials, forming strong relationships with neighbors, discussing politics and participating in local meetings regarding matters of school or city policy.

In a separate study looking at Washington, D.C., the findings again made clear that just because members of a community vote, there is no guarantee that they are then engaged in the community in other ways. While residents of D.C. have consistently high rates of voter turnout, they are unlikely to have strong relationships with neighbors, rarely eat dinner with other members of their household and while they volunteer at rates higher than the national average (coming in at 32.2%), this still quite low compared to the number of voters.

Between the two studies, it was found that political and civic engagement, in almost any form, is strongly correlated to not only a person’s income, but also to their level of education. While the studies referenced here look at fairly large population areas (the state of South Carolina as a whole and the city of D.C.), in cities with higher numbers of low-income residents with lower levels of educational attainment, there are clear reasons for concern. As elected officials, it can be challenging enough to work with the many different voices that arrive at the table; it is next to impossible to work with the voices that cannot even be found.

Given that a strong community is one that works on behalf of all its residents, it is imperative that citizens from all walks of life exercise their right to be both civically and politically engaged. As new technology is being developed, it is becoming easier than ever to encourage citizens to raise their voice. Emerging apps allow citizens to express needs for city services in real-time and allow elected officials to engage with residents who might never step foot in City Hall.


In Washington, D.C., the website “Grade D.C.” has been developed as a way for residents to provide feedback on the quality of city services and departments, from the public school system to the police department to the Department of Employee Services. In allowing the community to assign a grade to the work being done by government-run entities, not only do citizens have a voice to express their appreciation and frustrations, but they are able to see the feedback provided by others, and use that to make informed decisions as to the city agencies with which they choose to interact. By establishing this innovative online format to provide feedback to the city, leaders in D.C. have created a non-threatening way to engage with citizens who may not be willing to go to City Hall, yet have a vested interest in ensuring that city services are provided smoothly and effectively.

In Philadelphia, a similar desire to engage citizens led to the creation of the tool “Textizen,” as one piece of the New Urban Mechanics movement. Now being used in both Boston and Philadelphia, Textizen permits residents to text in their thoughts and opinions on any and all city projects, dramatically increasing the number of voices that are able to be heard on any one issue. Taking this concept a step further, Boston has developed the “Citizens Connect TXT” program, which gives anyone in the city a way to notify the city of local problems, from graffiti in public spaces to unlit streetlights and other safety hazards. In providing a simple way for citizens to contact their local government, these cities are actively encouraging civic engagement on the part of all

As members of the National League of Cities push to see their cities become centers of innovation, it is important to remember the necessity of including all citizens in this push forward. This is by no means a simple job, yet cities around the country are showing that they are able to rise to meet the challenge by thinking outside of the box and truly valuing the many different voices in their communities. When city officials intentionally choose to harness the powers of technology, the ideals of democracy come closer to being achieved, even in a world that has changed immeasurably since our nation was founded.

Coleman PictureAbout the author: Molly Coleman is an intern with the National League of Cities University.

Cell Tower Siting “In Writing” Requirement: Not What it Seems?


In T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell the Supreme Court will decide whether a letter denying a cell tower construction application that doesn’t explain the reasons for the denial meets the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA) “in writing” requirement.

T-Mobile applied to construct a 108-foot cell tower in an area zoned single-family residential.  The City of Roswell’s ordinance only allowed “alternative tower structures” in such a zone that were compatible with “the natural setting and surrounding structures.”  T-Mobile proposed an “alternative tower structure” in the shape of a man-made tree that would be about 25-feet taller than the pine trees surrounding it.

After a hearing, where city council members stated various reasons for why they were going to vote against the application, Roswell sent T-Mobile a brief letter saying the application was denied and that T-Mobile could obtain hearing minutes from the city clerk.

The TCA requires that a state or local government’s decision denying a cell tower construction permit be “in writing.”  The district court and other circuit courts have held that the TCA requires a written decision and a written record that explain why the city council’s majority rejected the application.

The Eleventh Circuit disagreed relying on a plain reading of the statute.  The TCA doesn’t say that “the decision [must] be ‘in a separate writing’ or in a ‘writing separate from the transcript of the hearing and the minutes of the meeting in which the hearing was held’ or ‘in a single writing that itself contains all of the grounds and explanations for the decision.’”

So, you might ask…why would the Court that decided whether the Affordable Care Act was constitutional resolve a seemingly trifling issue like what “in writing” means?  Well, the majority of the cases the Supreme Court accepts involve circuit splits where federal courts have ruled differently on the exact same issue.  Circuit splits arise in cases important and mundane and involve issues big and small.

And the impact of T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell on local governments should not necessarily be underestimated.  First, the remedy for failing to meet the “in writing” requirement isn’t a do over—it is a granting of the permit.  Second, meeting the “in writing” requirement as T-Mobile would have it might be harder than you think.  Particularly in a small town, the person preparing the denial likely will not be a sophisticated telecom lawyer who understands the intricacies of the Telecommunications Act.

The State and Local Legal Center will file an amicus brief in this case supporting Roswell.

Soronen_Pic (2)

About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Open Data: A New Tool for Building Climate Resilience

This post was written by C. Forbes Tompkins and Christina DeConcini of the World Resources Institute (WRI). The post originally appeared on WRI’s blog.


As communities across America continue to experience increasing climate impacts in the form of rising seas, heat waves, and extreme weather, local and federal leaders are starting to roll up their sleeves. Yesterday, the White House unveiled the Climate Data Initiative, a project aimed at arming local leaders across the country with information they need to plan for climate impacts while building more resilience. The initiative provides a key tool for helping those at the frontlines of climate change—America’s local communities.

The Climate Data Initiative delivers on a key element of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, announced last June. This new initiative creates an online hub of government data on climate impacts, giving local communities a detailed look at how a warmer world may impact their critical infrastructure like bridges, roads, and canals.

The initial phase will focus on providing data and tools related to sea-level rise and coastal flooding, and later phases will include information addressing other climate-related impacts. This release of comprehensive government data will be supported by additional efforts from the philanthropic and private sectors.

Google, for example, has committed to donate significant cloud computing and storage and to work with partners to create a near real-time system to monitor drought throughout the continental United States. Intel, Microsoft, and ESRI will create various maps, apps, and other tools and programs to help local officials and other stakeholders understand the climate risks specific to their communities.

Local Communities Are at the Frontlines of Climate Change

The initiative could be an important step in preparing the country for the impacts of climate change. From coastal towns in Southeast Florida to the world’s largest naval base in Hampton Roads, VA, local communities are increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise and other dangerous effects of climate change.

Indeed, climate change is already impacting virtually every community throughout the country—and these effects are poised to worsen with every degree of warming. Consider the following:

  • The world has now experienced 348 consecutive months where average global monthly temperatures were above the 20th century average. In other words, no one younger than 29 years old has lived a month of their lives where monthly temperatures were at or below average.
  • Scientists have found that the conditions leading to the 2011 Texas drought are 20 times more likely to occur now than in the 1960s due to human-induced climate change.
  • Sea-level rise has given a springboard for storm surge and coastal flooding that has amplified the impact of coastal storms, like Hurricane Sandy. Today’s annual probability of a Sandy-level flood reoccurrence has nearly doubled compared to 1950.
  • The Western United States now experiences seven times more large-scale wildfires than it did in the 1970s.
  • Extreme precipitation events have increased in every region of the United States between 1958 and 2007.

Escalating climate impacts not only threaten human well-being, they’re causing costly damages to critical infrastructure—damages that are expected to worsen in a warmer world with more frequent and intense extreme weather.

Severe weather is already the single-leading cause of power outages in the country, causing an estimated 679 widespread power outages between 2003 and 2012 and costing the economy, businesses, school systems, and emergency agencies billions of dollars.

Urban infrastructure is especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. A 2007 extreme precipitation event in New York City, for example, only lasted two hours, but caused a system of transit failures that stranded 2.5 million riders. And in Miami Beach, officials say it will cost as much as $400 million to prepare the city’s drainage system for sea-level rise-induced flooding and storm surge.

The Role of Open Data in Climate Resilience

While climate change will affect all communities throughout the United States, the type of impacts felt will vary at the region-, county-, and even city-levels. Communities cannot adapt to or mitigate these impacts without first understanding exactly how they will be affected.

Open data like that provided in the Climate Data Initiative can help provide this level of information. For instance, the climate data site will offer infrastructure and geographic mapping data sets—showing specific bridges, roads, canals, etc.—and help local decision-makers understand how this infrastructure might be impacted by things like sea level rise, drought, or extreme weather. Local governments can use this current and relevant data as a basis for developing effective plans and utilizing resources.

The Climate Data Initiative builds on other work that connects federal activities with local climate action, including a Presidential Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience and the recent budget request for a $1 billion fund for climate resiliency. This latest initiative by the administration not only reinforces the President’s acknowledgement that climate change is occurring, but also his prioritization of empowering local governments to address the issue.

Helping localities throughout the nation become more resilient is an incredibly important piece in overcoming the climate challenge. But, as organizers of this initiative acknowledge, adaptation and resiliency strategies will need to be accompanied by comprehensive reductions in annual greenhouse gas emissions at the national and international levels. Adaptation combined with comprehensive mitigation action is the only way to ensure a sustainable future—both locally and globally.

Bright Spots in Community Engagement: Philadelphia – “Civic Fusion” at Work

This is the first post in a blog series highlighting communities that were profiled in the forthcoming Knight Foundation and NLC joint report, Bright Spots in Community Engagement. The report showcases 14 U.S. communities that are building greater civic participation and engagement from the bottom up.

“My belief is that if we keep helping these good guys [in City Hall] do good work, their colleagues will need to learn the value of partnering with engaged citizens.”
— Alex Hillman, Indy Hall


For several decades after its industrial heyday, the City of Philadelphia suffered the steady outflow of residents, neighborhoods slowly emptying out even as the city’s prestigious universities attracted greater numbers of educated young people to the region.

This “brain drain” was severe: as recently as 2004, a study from the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia found that fewer than 30 percent of out-of-state students that attended Philadelphia-area colleges remained in the area after graduating. They took their talents instead to New York, San Francisco, and Austin – cities with strong reputations for finance, technology, arts and culture, and entrepreneurialism.

And then this began to change – slowly, at first, and then so rapidly that by 2010, when the nonprofit Campus Philly repeated the Economy League’s study, a strong majority (61%) of out-of-state students graduating from Philadelphia colleges indicated that they had remained in the city. The decennial census showed Philadelphia’s population holding steady for the first time since 1950, but this headline figure masked a very encouraging increase of 50,000 25-34 year olds absorbed by newly fashionable neighborhoods around the business district’s perimeter.

In concert with this demographic change there has been a sustained and imaginative effort from the mayor’s office, from philanthropists such as the Knight Foundation and city boosters such as Select Greater Philadelphia and Campus Philly to engage young Philadelphians as entrepreneurs and civic leaders.

Bright spots include loosely-knit collaboratives such as “Open Access Philadelphia” (OAP), which have built the tools and relationships that help fuse young activists and entrepreneurs to the civic life of the city:

  • In 2010, joining a broad coalition that won $12 million for the city to expand broadband access, mostly through the services of existing nonprofits
  • In 2011, launching the city’s Open Data Portal during the city’s first “Tech Week” and hosting the first cohort of Code for America fellows
  • In 2012, working collaboratively with Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration to issue an executive order committing the city to data sharing and hiring the city’s first Chief Data Officer, Mark Headd, formerly of Code for America.

While this work has not been driven primarily by city officials, Chris Wink of Technically Philly (an organization often described as the Philadelphia tech scene’s “Rolling Stone”) embraced the city’s support: “when the people who are charged with securing the future of your city embraces innovation, it sends a message that Philadelphia is moving past the decline that has characterized it since the 1970s.”

This week, Philadelphia celebrates its third Philly Tech Week, expected to attract even greater interest than last year’s 10,000 attendees, 88 events and 40 sponsors.  Local officials will again be outside of City Hall to engage with Philadelphia’s entrepreneurs and civic-minded residents  where they live, at co-working spaces along North 3rd Street , at “unconferences” and independent businesses throughout the city.

This Philadelphia story has been a great success so far in embodying “civic fusion,” a term widely used within the city’s government and entrepreneurial technology scenes to describe the public-private efforts to bolster community engagement around technology and data sharing.

Fine-Tuning Broadband Adoption Strategies

At a Broadband Summit at the FCC last week, national experts, academics and community program leaders discussed our country’s progress on where people are when it comes to taking advantage of broadband access.  The major challenges to broadband adoption have been having access to broadband services, how and why to use that access once you have it, and cost.  Presenters at the Summit discussed their research and how they have discovered subtle nuances to these challenges based on a variety of social and economic factors and how to strategically address them.

Dr. John Horrigan, Vice President and Director of the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies talked about the state of play in 2009, when the FCC’s Broadband Task Force provided an interim report to the FCC on the National Broadband Plan.  Some of the key lessons learned in the past 4 years echo Dr. Gant’s findings that challenges are very specific to communities.  While access, digital literacy and relevance still remain barriers to adoption, there are other reasons as well.  Not all adopters are the same.  In 2008-2009, the understanding was that non-adopters tended to be older populations who didn’t see the need for it.  Since then, research has shown that most non-adopters, regardless of age, can become adopters as long as strategies to increase adoption cater to their needs.  This shows that the non-adoption problem is much more complex and requires specific, case-by-case attention.

Dr. Jon Gant from the University of Illinois, School of Library and Information Sciences talked about the importance of public and private stakeholders to jointly create strategies that are specific to community needs.  Broadband adoption solutions can’t be developed in a vacuum; success of adoption programs rely very much on what community needs are and then even drilling further down, the needs of individuals.  He discussed how day-to-day priorities for potential users—such as ensuring daily childcare or rigid job schedules—can impact how a person utilizes broadband.  As with any kind of learning and education processes, sustained practice and use is vital for increasing knowledge and development.

Community leaders understand this and are taking it into consideration as they work to bridge the digital divide in their communities.  The Massachusetts Broadband Institute has developed an online portal for veterans which is essentially a one-stop shop for information on veteran’s benefits.  The need to access this information quickly and efficiently is what is driving broadband adoption in the veteran community in Massachusetts.  The Hmong American Partnership is an organization that provides support and resources to the Hmong and other refugee communities in America.  Employment and training is their biggest department and they are working to ensure that digital literacy is built into the programs they administer to their users.  The College of Menominee Nation has deployed broadband throughout the reservation to provide access not only to students for higher education, but also to the community to create an interest in what they could do with broadband, which will then drive adoption and usage.

The broadband challenges of yesterday are still the challenges we face today.  Cost is a huge deterrent to disconnected populations realizing the value of broadband to their everyday lives.  We still face digital literacy obstacles.  What we know now, though, is that these problems can be successfully met by knowing who you are working with and understanding what their needs are.  Broadband adoption still has a way to go in this country but we are on a stronger path to ensuring we are connecting citizens to what they need to be connected to.

The Latest in Economic Development

This week’s blog discusses an innovative, localized way to fund local development projects, two regions focused on mutually beneficial cooperation, an NPR story on insourcing, and the startup culture between the coasts. Comment below or send to common@nlc.org.

Get the last edition of “The Latest in Economic Development.”

“Why couldn’t people in the community invest in real estate right next door?” This piece in the Atlantic Cities about a pair of DC real estate investors explains that the answer is actually very complicated. After purchasing a property on H St. in the District, the pair (who are also brothers) invited local residents to “invest online in… shares as small as $100, in a public offering qualified by the Securities and Exchange Commission.” But the process was complicated by SEC regulations intended to protect unaccredited investors; so complicated that the brothers went through six law firms before they found out their plan was viable. In essence, the H St. deal used a model similar to crowdfunding, which removed the need for a Wall Street middleman. This democratized the development, which, in the future, may allow for the feasibility of unique projects usually passed over by big developers. Read the whole article. It’s a very good read.

Two groups in the Midwest and Rust Belt are banding together to promote their regions. In the Midwest, Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines, and St. Louis are trying to promote mutual interests to create a “mini-mega-region” that can compete with larger metro areas. They are focusing on “four key areas: transportation, water, life sciences, and connecting their entrepreneurial communities.” In the Rust Belt, Pittsburgh entrepreneur Kit Mueller started RustBuilt.org hoping to link innovators within the industrial heart of America to “raise awareness of the possibilities to the nation’s coasts and around the globe.” For more on regional cooperation and economic development, check out my recent publication and corresponding blog post.

NPR recently did a piece on GE’s Alliance Park in Louisville, Ky. which explores how companies are experiencing the economic benefits of insourcing. GE found value in locating the different parts of the production chain – previously spread across different countries – to one place: “with workers in different departments physically sharing the same space… cross-interest conversations can happen more easily.” This translated to more efficient production processes without the need to cut the workforce. NPR also highlights a San Francisco hoodie company owned by Bayard Winthrop who has been more than pleased with producing his products here in the US.

It’s not a requirement that great startups be located on the coasts. Small interior cities are producing their fair share as well. In Grand Rapids, MI, Rick DeVos started a venture fund that provides small amounts of seed capital and has a Shark Tank-like system of choosing startups for additional financing. Additionally, investor Ray Moncrief “helps oversee four funds totaling $160 million… in and near Appalachia.” These funds highlight a continued focus on fostering local entrepreneurship instead of trying to land big firms. Because even though it is inevitable that some startups will flame out, “that often creates a virtuous cycle that benefits the local economy.”

Gigabits Around the Country – Part 2

This is the second in a two-part blog exploring gigabit connections around the country.  The National League of Cities’ Center for Research and Innovation partnered with Next American City to develop a case study, Gig City, U.S.A.: Bringing Google Fiber to Kansas City, which looks at the developing partnership between Google and the Kansas Cities.  The first blog identified some of the benefits of locally created and managed fiber connections and reviewed Chattanooga, TN, which boasted the country’s first gigabit connection.  This week’s blog looks at other efforts around the country and the hallmarks of a successful municipal fiber network. 

Danville, VA

At a recent economic development conference in Danville, VA, stakeholders from both the public and private sectors came together to look at the challenges and opportunities that exist with municipal wireless networks.

Danville, VA once had the highest unemployment in the state.  Their low-skilled, poorly educated population created a digital divide that made it difficult to attract the types of industry that would sustain development in the region.  But today the city is able to attract and retain business to create jobs and improve the quality of life for their citizens.  This is not an insignificant feat for an isolated, industrial community an hour and a half away from any major metro area.

While general communications access (telephone, cable TV and internet) was adequate for the home consumer, it was not optimized for businesses.  Building a network that would help expand business opportunities was one of the key features of Danville’s approach to local economic development.  The best service would be a “fiber to the premise” model but this was costly and would require a critical mass of demand to be able to provide it affordably.  Additionally, this was a prime opportunity to be able to wire public anchor institutions such as schools, so figuring out how to do that successfully was also important.  Finally, understanding what role the city should have in this (to be an infrastructure or service provider) would be key to their success.  Some of the other hallmarks of their approach:

–       Learn from others: the benefit of local governments is that there is no proprietary interest on solutions.

–       Understand what they were working with: they had adequate telephone, cable tv and internet access but there was nothing readily available for robust business use.

–       Do the research: findings from a community study showed that they needed a shift from their manufacturing economy to something more forward and progressive;  this is what spurred the need for more robust broadband capabilities.

–       Understand the differences: Danville knew which different types of connectivity would be most appropriate for home and business uses.

These strategies helped create a system for Danville that relied solely on local funds (no federal or state grants) and kept the city debt free.  The result—nDanville—is an open access multiservice network, operated by private firms that allows the city to provide direct service to schools and other city buildings.  It is financially self-sufficient and has not created an unwanted burden on tax or utility payers.

Keys to the Success of Municipal Wireless Networks 

Danville, and Chattanooga, both worked to ensure that their fiber optic networks had staying power.  Much thought, planning, and stakeholder input went into the creation of a solid business plan which was the first step into determining if this was truly a viable option.  Click here for a business plan from Kirkland, Washington’s municipal broadband network.

Secondly, access isn’t enough to attract business; there are other components such as a strong workforce and an infrastructure to support that workforce.  Community involvement was a key part as well.  When Bristol, VA created their network with the Bristol Virginia Utilities Authority, they city made it a point to speak to community groups about the need for broadband access and how it would impact community development.  Chattanooga followed a similar process of engagement buy educating the community on what a fiber network could do for them and charging community leaders to help raise awareness about the network.

Municipal networks are not a one size fits all tool to increase local economic development and address other challenges cities face.  It involves substantial planning with input from key stakeholders, a business plan that can prove its sustainability, an engaged community that can harness the power of the network and a business community that will use the network to drive development.  While strategies to develop these components will vary from city to city, local leaders are in a position to take advantage of what has and has not worked and use those  lessons to create their own designs for increasing and enhancing access in their communities.

Gigabits Around the Country

The National League of Cities’ Center for Research and Innovation has joined with Next American City to explore how cities are developing innovative models for tackling complex urban issues and strengthening their local economies.  NLC is featuring a series of case studies on foreign direct investment, fiber connectivity, and immigration. This blog highlights the second in the series, Gig City, U.S.A.: Bringing Google Fiber to Kansas City, which takes a look at the developing partnership between Google and the Kansas Cities.

The Google Fiber initiative taking place in Kansas City, Kansas and Missouri is an innovative approach to the way cities are collaborating with the private sector to provide robust Internet access to their residents.  Not only are they offering a transformative product but it’s being done with input from all stakeholders, ranging from the local government to the residents.  As Google Fiber still yet to be deployed in Kansas City, KS and MO and stories and lessons learned are yet to be gleaned from this initiative, there are several other gigabit initiatives that already exist around the country.

Chattanooga, TN, Bristol, VA, Lafayette, LA, Morristown, TN, and Burlington, VT have all built their own (municipal) fiber networks and are advertising universal gigabit availability.  What is important to note here is not only the revolutionary impact these speeds can have to local economies but the leadership at the local level to build a sustainable, self-sufficient system.  This two-part blog will look at some of the benefits of city-created and owned networks and then some successful examples of municipal fiber networks.

Why Cities Develop Their Own Networks

Because the private sector may be unwilling to connect everyone in a community, a city-owned network may be the only way to ensure everyone has fast, affordable and reliable access to the Internet.  And the benefits of a city-managed network go beyond universal access.  Many times municipal network speeds can faster and more affordable, comparably speaking.  Other benefits are that these networks can lead to improved and more efficient public service delivery, as with the case of Chattanooga’s electrical utility (see below) or delivering gigabit access to schools at affordable rates (Danville, VA in the next blog.)

Ultimately, the goal with broadband access is to allow people to take advantage of the potential it has to improve the user’s quality of life whether it’s through business development, improved healthcare, education or recreation.  This is a trend we are moving towards but there are some big obstacles to successfully implementing municipal networks ranging from state preemption to the lack of effective planning and business models at the local level.

Chattanooga, TN

Chattanooga is not the only city with citywide gigabit availability anymore, but they were the first in the US.  Their story is a compelling one to highlight as it was largely driven by the city’s desire to provide improved electrical utility services in the community.  Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB) consists of a 600 square mile service area which is now entirely connected by Chattanooga’s fiber optic network.  This network provides access to 170,000 businesses and homes to Internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second.  An important feature to note here, is that access is provided to all areas, regardless of geographical location or income.  Construction of the network did not rely on self-selection by neighborhoods, such as the Google Fiber initiative, but on the premise of enhancing an existing service needed and used by all residents.

EPB provided a variety of telecommunications services to local businesses but in 2007, decided to develop a 10-year plan for the construction of a fiber optic network which would create a more intelligent system for managing their electrical services.  Some of the features included more frequent meter readings and sharing that information with ratepayers real time in addition being able to reroute power in case of storms and disruptions to power services.  The below diagram chronicles the long process of updating their “business model” of electric utility provider to internet provider coupled with a variety of legal issues for the city.

Source: “Broadband at the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks”, the Benton Foundation and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, April 2012

The transition from a utility provider to a multi-service provider came about because of the robust quality of a fiber network and the need to find a way to translate it’s benefits beyond just smart meter readings.  In the laying of the fiber conduit, cities saw the benefit this could be for improving other aspects of community development such as in healthcare, small businesses and jobs creation as well as being a service provider to households in a sustainable way.  These are the forward thinking measures cities are leveraging to not only improve services but to reap benefits that far reaching in their economic development goals.

To learn more about these Chattanooga and its gigabit connections, please visit the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and their report “Broadband at the Speed of Light.”

Please visit CitiesSpeak later this week to learn of other cities that have built their own gigabit connections and what it has meant for them.

Cybersecurity Webinar: Is Your City Vulnerable to a Cyber Attack?

Chances are the answer to the question above is yes, and chances are there is more you can do to reduce the risk to your city’s infrastructure and its citizens.

To help raise awareness among city leaders about the threats local governments and their citizens face online, as well as the steps they can take to mitigate those threats, NLC will be holding a free webinar on “Cybersecurity Awareness” in conjunction with the Public Technology Institute.  The webinar will take place Thursday, October 25, 2:00 PM – 3:00 PM ET.  Participants will learn about cyber risks and vulnerabilities that governments face—both internal and external—and the actions they can take to provide for a safer and secure cyber work environment.

It is a good time for us to hold this webinar, as October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month.  Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has pointed out that  we must ask “all Americans to ACT—Achieve Cybersecurity Together.”  Cities play a key role in this effort.  They not only need to protect critical infrastructure and data, but also have a resposibility to educate its citizens and municipal employees.  We hope you will join us and find out more about what you can do to prepare your city and citizens.

Cybersecurity Awareness Webinar
Thursday, October, 25
2:00 PM – 3:00 PM ET

This is an issue every city leader should know about – for more information as to why, read more after the jump…

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