Local Action, State Support Needed for Muni Broadband Expansion

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This is a guest post by Angela Siefer.

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According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, over 400 communities in the United States have a publicly owned broadband network. But how did they get there? How did they access the poles? Where did they find existing assets? Are those assets available for anyone to use? How was the network paid for?  In some cases, these projects were made possible with support from state partners. Since our past blog posts in this series provided a basic overview of municipal networks, this post will focus on how local officials can work with state policymakers. As you may have guessed, it can get complicated.

Projects that increase broadband availability, affordability and adoption tend to occur at the local level but they need state level support. That support can come in the form of access to open networks, state rights of way, dig once policies and facilitating coordination. To date, 19 states have legislated barriers that discourage community broadband projects. Since broadband deployment tends to occur at the local level, states that avoid placing restrictions on who can own and operate a broadband network leave more options open for local entities to implement innovative solutions.

If you think of the Internet as a highway system, the middle mile is the highway and the on/exit ramps and the streets are the last mile. Government funded broadband build-out (by the National Telecommunications Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture) tends to focus on middle mile construction. Owners of middle mile networks choose whether or not to make their fiber open to use by competitors. State governments that mandate their fiber be open to use by anyone (at reasonable cost based rates) can help decrease the cost of build-out, whether by for-profit companies, non-profits or governmental entities.

Here are several examples of state level policies supporting local work to build out community broadband networks:

State Level Policies That Expand State Rights of Way

Arizona SB 1402, the Digital Arizona Highways Bill was passed and signed in 2012. The bill expanded the Arizona Department of Transportation’s state rights-of-way to include transportation of information, in addition to vehicles. Whenever funding is available, the Arizona Department of Transportation may install broadband conduit and lease the conduit to providers at a cost-based rate. In Gigabit Communities: Technical Strategies for Facilitating Public or Private Broadband Construction in Your Community, CTC Technology and Energy declares, “state officials estimate that the incremental cost of placing the conduit during other construction processes is comparable to the cost of painting stripes on the highway.” It is a low cost investment that benefits everyone.

State Use of Federal Policies

The FTTH (Fiber To the Home Council) encourages states to utilize the federal pole attachments statute (Section 224 of the Communications Act 5), through which “states are able to assert jurisdiction and require all owners of poles, ducts, and conduits to make those facilities available to new entrants on a non-discriminatory basis and at reasonable (cost-based) rates, terms, and conditions.” The FTTH Council position paper “State and Local Government Role in Facilitating Access to Poles, Ducts, and Conduits in Public Rights-of-Way” lists Vermont, Massachusetts and Oregon as examples of states that have mandated access to poles, ducts and/or conduits.

State Coordination Efforts

States can help facilitate coordination of broadband infrastructure projects among interested partners. With coordination from the State of Connecticut Office of Consumer Counsel, an initial five municipalities issued a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to Develop Gigabit Internet Networks in Connecticut. This RFQ has three goals:

  1. Create a world-leading gigabit-capable network in targeted commercial corridors – as well as in residential areas with demonstrated demand – in order to foster innovation, drive job creation and stimulate economic growth;
  2. Provide free or heavily discounted 10-100 MB (minimum) Internet service over a wired or wireless network to underserved and disadvantaged residential areas across the territories and diverse demographics; and
  3. Deliver gigabit Internet service at prices comparable to other gigabit fiber communities across the nation.

This effort reinforces an extensive state fiber network, streamlined processes governing rights-of-way, and a single administrative point of contact for building broadband infrastructure.

State partners can play a critical role in the build-out of municipal networks. Most importantly, they can support innovation and progress with smart policies and carefully executed support to local projects. The outcome is increased opportunity for local governments to improve broadband availability, affordability and adoption.

Angela-Siefer-HeadshotAbout the Author: Angela Siefer is a digital inclusion consultant and an adjunct fellow at the Pell Center, Salve Regina University. She is currently finishing up the Pell Center State-Level Broadband Policy Primer. You can find more of her work at http://angelasiefer.com.