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.

Board Appointments for Public Safety Communications Network Signals Good News for Cities

The Department of Commerce took the first major step in the planning and construction of a public safety communications network Monday morning when Acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank appointed 12 members of the board of directors for the First Responder Network Authority, which—thankfully—is simply being referred to as “FirstNet.”

FirstNet is responsible for overseeing the planning, construction, and maintenance of a nationwide wireless communications network that will provide seamless, high-speed wireless data services and interoperability between first responders.  Building a public safety grade, dedicated nationwide wireless data network on the scale of a major carrier like Verizon or AT&T is not a simple or inexpensive task—not to mention one fraught with politics.  Guaranteeing both urban and rural coverage (as Congress required in legislation) while keeping federal, state and local costs down is going to take innovative thinking and extraordinary determination by the board of directors.

That said, the board is an impressive list of individuals who are certainly up to the task.  The FirstNet board features public safety and local government leaders, as well as private sector telecommunications experts.  From a city standpoint, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and current New York Police Department Deputy Chief Charles Dowd will be bringing their significant experience in municipal government to the board’s decision-making process.

The strong local perspective these individuals bring to the board is important.  The legislation creating the nationwide public safety broadband network relies heavily on a partnership between the states and the federal government.  With the vast majority of our country’s first responders being local employees (rather than state or federal personnel), the local perspective Mayor Webb, Chief Dowd, and the rest of the public safety personnel bring to the board will be vital in ensuring a practical network.  While virtually all the major negotiations will occur between the state and federal level, local governments are going to ultimately be responsible for deciding whether to—quite literally—buy into the network.  If the network does not serve local needs or is too expensive a solution, it serves no one.  These board appointments, however, provide some assurances that local first responders will come first.

Stay tuned for more as the board begins to meet and provide hints as to its vision for the network.

After the jump: Local governments moving ahead with the network, grants on the horizon, and more.

Read More

Broadband in the United States

It isn’t new news that the United States lags in broadband adoption and download speeds.  The United States was one of the world leaders on broadband penetration in the 1990s, ranking fourth among other developed and developing nations.  But by 2006, the U.S.’s standing slipped drastically, according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, indicating a lack of leadership on broadband development on a variety of levels.

Broadband, which is used by private citizens, local governments and the private sector every day, has the ability to transform the way we communicate, work, learn and socialize.  Many experts believe that much of the economic growth that has taken place in recent years has resulted from the use of broadband networks to improve productivity, provide better products and services and support innovation in all industries.  Better access also defines our competitive edge in the world by how many of our citizens have universal and affordable access to broadband services.

The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband access as speeds ranging from as low as 200 kilobits per second (kbps), or 200,000 bits per second, to 30 megabits per second (Mbps), or 30,000,000 bits per second.  However, a report of countries with the fastest internet speeds shows that the average speed in the U.S. is about 616 kbps; drastically slower than in South Korea, which topped the list at an average of 2,202 kbps.  For the end user like you and me, it means there is a greater chance that your favorite Netflix, Youtube, or Hulu video will crash while you are watching it here in this country.  But there are also broader, national concerns.  Without a higher standard for broadband connection and more investment in it, this country is at a disadvantage when it comes to competing internationally in the development and provision of services delivered over broadband networks.

One of the biggest challenges with broadband access is that it isn’t universally available to all parts of the country.  Providing service to less populated areas can prove to be unprofitable for the private sector, making access uneven and spotty.  “The big carriers have stopped investing in next-generation networks, leaving communities with few options but to consider their own investments.” says Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  The flipside to this argument, though, is that access doesn’t always imply usage.  There is a lack of understanding of how broadband access can truly impact a person’s day to day life, from something as small as paying a bill online versus mailing a check in to opening doors up for on-line education when local options are not available.

Revisit CitiesSpeak in the weeks to come for a more in-depth look at technology and broadband issues as they play out in fields of education, health care, transportation and finance.

Payroll Tax Cut Deal Paves Way for Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network

The following was written by Mitchel Herckis, Principal Associate for Federal Relations

In these difficult times, it seems rare that we can tout a bipartisan victory that helps cities and towns across the nation.  However, this week Congress has the opportunity to take a major step forward in replacing the current patchwork of voice-only first responder communications with a modern nationwide 4G wireless network that will ensure our first responders receive the information they need when disaster strikes.

Since well before September 11, 2001, cities and towns, along with our first responders, have requested the construction of a nationwide interoperable network for public safety.  After the attacks in 2001, it became a major recommendation of the 9/11 Commission—one of the few never fulfilled by Congress.

However, with the passage of the payroll tax bill, Congress will pave the way for the creation of a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network that gives our first responders access to technologies that you and I take for granted as commercial customers.

Once fully implemented, first responders will be able to share video, pictures, and data in real time.  Police and fire services from other jurisdictions and states will be able to have their communications equipment seamlessly linked into local systems when responding to major emergencies and national crises.  Most importantly of all, public safety will have a reliable, resilient communications network that they control.

While details of the agreement are still coming out, one thing is certain: this is a big win for the National League of Cities, local governments, and our first responders.

Here’s just some of what the final deal will mean to our nation:

•    Sufficient dedicated spectrum for public safety.  The bill will reallocate the 700 MHz D Block of spectrum to public safety, and retains nationwide “narrowband” 700 MHz spectrum currently used for land mobile radio (LMR) communication.  This ensures our responders will be able to utilize both mission critical voice and modern 4G wireless broadband services to communicate in almost every emergency situation.
•    $7 billion in funds for build out and operate the nationwide network.  While there is a requirement of a non-federal match of at least 20 percent, it may be waived if in “the public interest.”
•    Funding for Next Generation 9-1-1.  NG9-1-1 will allow citizens to send texts, pictures, and video to 9-1-1 call centers, who will in turn be able to share vital information with our first responders.
As a result of gaining this significant benefit for cities and towns, public safety utilizing the “T-Band” (470-512 MHz) will be required to transition off of it over the next 9-11 years.  For many localities, this will mean changing how public safety communications are handled.  To assist localities, the legislation authorizes funding to assist affected state and local governments in relocating from the T-Band.

The bill may also impact some local authority.  Under the bill state and local governments must approve any requests for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of that tower or base station that involves collocation of new transmission equipment, removal of transmission equipment, or replacement of that transmission equipment.  Historic preservation and environmental requirements will still have to be met, though.

The network will be overseen by a national governance committee consisting of state, local, and tribal representatives, as well as public safety officials, from across the nation.   While individual states will have an option to opt out of the national network construction and conduct their own deployment, their plan to do so would need to be approved by the national governance body, meeting certain requirements of interoperability and perhaps other benchmarks.
While challenges lie ahead, we can safely say Congress has taken the big step in the right direction.  We can also say that we are on the threshold of a great victory for our communities, our first responders, and our nation.

FCC Gives Cities A Preview of Broadband Plan

During a meeting of local elected officials, Blair Levin, executive director of the Federal Communications Commission, Omnibus Broadband Initiative gave a sneak peak at the soon to be released National Broadband Plan. “Broadband is the common medium this country uses…’ he said during the meeting, underlying the need for a stronger technological infrastructure that would ensure affordable access to increase economic development and job growth.

The plan, due out on Tuesday, March 16, doesn’t seek to be a set of rules so much as a set of recommendations to consider. While the plan won’t address all issues, one key message is its support of deployment. Instead of concerning themselves with regulations and pricing models and rights of way issues, local governments should be identifying what their needs are and then setting goals to achieve those needs. Even if it means creating their own networks if there isn’t adequate service by existing providers.

Mr. Levin finished his presentation understanding that not everyone is going to love this plan. It’s not going to fix all problems in terms of local broadband agendas. And even if it did, there are financial and political obstacles for locals that could prohibit a robust broadband plan. But like the creation of an interstate highway, there had to be a starting point to get to where we are now. This is our starting point.