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Overcoming Challenges in Municipal Broadband Expansion

Expanding broadband to improve municipal services is a priority goal for cities large and small across America. The Coalition for Local Internet Choice database lists over a thousand providers that are replacing, overbuilding or developing start up initiatives across the country. Numerous cities are choosing to take control of their “4th utility,” with over 450 local governments assuming public ownership of their telecommunications networks. As your city looks to expand fiber, reduce cost and develop its smart infrastructure, here are some key elements and priorities to think about:

Municipal Broadband Expansion One size does not fit all. Each municipality has a distinct landscape of service providers, existing infrastructure, dark fiber opportunities, legal requirements and financing needs. Be sure to clearly define your unique goals and how broadband fits into your city’s long term economic development strategy. Some communities are even banding together to solve a collective broadband need. Connect with local and nationwide municipal broadband groups where leaders share their experience and knowledge about broadband implementation and management.

Silos can slow you down. Broadband expansion effects resources across many different areas. The hurdles in planning and implementing an expansion will require supportive leadership and a board team effort. With many different approaches to expanding broadband, a coordinated team of technical, business, financial, legal, infrastructure and community leaders will bring a comprehensive and far-reaching focus to your efforts.

Competition comes from many places. In your city, know which utilities are well positioned to implement efficiencies from broadband expansion. It could be cable, telco, internet service providers (ISPs) or utilities, all of which may already own the infrastructure and have the rights of way. For the past several years, ISPs have been spending less on upgrading their networks. More recently they have been incentivized by the threat of competition. You may have multiple options for accomplishing your expansion goals and will need to understand all the players in order to determine the best solution.

Legal barriers take time to resolve. In the past, broadband incumbents have successfully lobbied to restrict competition. Many states and municipalities have inadvertently created barriers to broadband expansion. Leaders should review permitting, pole attachment contracts, rights of way and use of facilities costs as examples. In order to improve your broadband, you will need to think about removing any possible regulatory constraints that drive up cost and reduce productivity.

Financing is complicated. Many community leaders and incumbent service providers have been evaluating the cost savings and economic growth associated with upgrading and expanding their fiber infrastructure. Though studies have shown gigabit services to contribute positively to municipal revenue, each situation is unique and needs to be evaluated. Your municipality may benefit from federal and state grants or incentives, although these options require application and are not guaranteed. Bonds are an alternative, but new debt is often undesirable or unavailable. New financing options, such as those offered by Landmark Dividend, provide capital in exchange for an operating lease. Your city will need to determine if it wants to own or lease the updated networks. If the city chooses to own, how will it operate and maintain the network?

Municipal Broadband

The Environment is changing quickly. As with any municipal infrastructure project, the time required to research, plan and ultimately implement a solution can take years. Broadband technology continues to evolve, and so does the range of competitors and services. Be prepared to continually stay abreast of changes in the municipal broadband arena so that you are always aware of best practices and new approaches. To get your broadband initiative off the ground, first clearly identify what your city wants to gain from an expanded broadband network; get buy-in from key players and assemble an implementation team; identify barriers and regulatory constraints and pursue numerous potential funding sources early on in your project, since funding is the ultimate catalyst to implementation.

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