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.