By Lindsay Frost, Michael Baskin, and Jelani Newton
The value of a broadband network goes beyond speed and is maximized when it is built to meet a community’s specific needs, match its values, and bridge its divides.
Local government leaders can draw upon the work of those who have gone before, tapping into peer-pioneering cities and global supports from nonprofit organizations.
As people increasingly rely on the Internet not only for their work and education but also for everyday activities, it is easy to take this invaluable resource for granted. One in 10 Americans, however, does not have access to high-speed Internet, as reported in 2016 by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).1
In rural communities, 39 percent of the population lacks high-speed Internet access.2 Understanding the significant impact that Internet access has on education, economic opportunity, and quality of life, stakeholders at all levels of government and across private and nonprofit sectors have been working to close the gaps in access.
In the movement to expand reliable high-speed Internet access to all, managers and local governments have an important role to play in assessing and addressing the unique needs of their communities. This role can include providing network access where the private market does not, convening public and private stakeholders to create or expand networks, and removing barriers to access by offering subsidies and digital literacy training.
Six Cities Collaborate
Representatives from six U.S. cities collaboratively developed a resource guide for other local government leaders seeking to advance high-speed Internet access and digital literacy in their communities. The cities of Chattanooga, Tennessee; Gonzales, California; Greensboro, North Carolina; New Orleans, Louisiana; Springfield, Missouri; and Youngstown, Ohio, with support from the National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA), were brought together by the National Resource Network (the Network).
The Network is a core component of the Obama administration’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) initiative sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The Network is administered by a consortium that includes ICMA.
Drawing from the guide, this article outlines six strategies for success in expanding community access to reliable, high-speed Internet service. We’re using the term “broadband” to refer to high-speed Internet service that exceeds the FCC’s 25 megabits per second download speed threshold. Here are the strategies:
Seek out partners and resources. One of the most important strategies for success in expanding broadband access is getting the right individuals and groups to the table, working together on the complex social and technical issues involved in expanding access. Issues range from understanding federal regulations to overcoming divides in digital access, requiring local leaders to bring a diverse stakeholder group together to ensure the necessary expertise.
Such national nonprofit organizations as Next Century Cities (http://nextcenturycities.org), Mozilla Foundation (https://www.mozilla.org/en-US/gigabit), and US Ignite (https://www.us-ignite.org) support the advancement of high-speed broadband networks in communities across the nation.
Further, national meetings and events like the annual Gigabit City Summit, hosted in Kansas City, Missouri, by Kansas City Digital Drive (http://www.kcdigitaldrive.org) provide opportunities to network with potential partners and gain technical expertise.
State and federal government agencies can also be valuable partners in expanding community access to broadband. FCC, NTIA, HUD, and other agencies have established ongoing programs and specific initiatives through which local leaders can gain access to funding and information resources.
HUD’s Connect Home initiative (http://connecthome.hud.gov), for example, is a public-private collaboration to increase broadband access for families who live in HUD facilities.
Locally, there are many natural partners. Broadband access provides a platform for local government leaders to engage with the tech and start-up communities, general businesses, community groups focused on digital access, libraries, research organizations, and schools. Broadband access is also of interest to police departments and housing authorities who may not initially appear to be likely allies but can become an important part of the effort to expand access to new communities.
Local leaders should conduct a network scan and develop a resource map to understand what potential partners and resources already exist and how they can support their specific community goals.
Understand key barriers and limitations. Identifying common barriers can help communities to understand what is possible and what needs to be done.
One obstacle commonly faced by local governments is the legislative environment in their states. State laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, for example, impose geographical limits on the expansion of broadband access to protect the interests of incumbent service providers.
FCC, however, supports removing barriers to broadband investment and competition, as directed by Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
In 2014, Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina, filed petitions with FCC arguing that their respective state laws violated Section 706, which requires FCC and state agencies to “encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans.” In February 2015, FCC voted to pre-empt those state laws. Unfortunately, this FCC ruling was recently overturned in court.
Local leaders should actively seek to identify legislative, financial, political, or other obstacles early in the process and evaluate any possible alternatives to mitigate or remove these barriers. In Tennessee, for example, a utility can offer fiberoptic phone service outside of its electrical service footprint but is limited to that footprint for providing broadband. Similarly in North Carolina, although electrical utilities can sell electrical service outside of their home county, they can only sell broadband within their home county.
Engage the community throughout the process. It is critical to engage the local community throughout the entire process of any local broadband expansion initiative. Early and active public engagement can inform prioritization and ensure that the initiative meets the community’s needs.
Hosting information sessions and design charrettes that engage diverse groups from across the community is critical to wider buy in. Kansas City, Missouri, the first Google Fiber city,3 ensured early community engagement by hosting a series of meetings with representatives of different neighborhoods, industries, and stakeholder groups to learn what these groups wanted to gain from high-speed Internet and what access gaps were already present.
Kansas City leaders published their learnings from these meetings in a city playbook (http://www.kcdigitaldrive.org/playbook), a reference guide to the city’s wants, needs, and hopes for broadband implementation. By creating this playbook in an open, inclusive manner through community conversation, the city was able to galvanize broad support for broadband access and to identify key community focus areas, values, and goals.
The playbook process helped align diverse stakeholder priorities and, importantly, shift the conversation from network implementation to network activation—the “who, what, when, and to what end” of how the Google Fiber network could be brought to life for the benefit of Kansas City’s residents.
Several communities have taken creative approaches to community engagement around broadband access. In Louisville, Kentucky (Speed Up Louisville) and Seattle, Washington (Seattle Broadband Speed Test), broadband access leaders deployed apps that quickly tested user download speeds and mapped those speeds so that the community could contribute to building its own map of access.
The apps not only built wide support for action and lists of supporters, they also created transparency that held providers accountable for advertised speeds and helped them find market opportunities for expansion.
Engaging the public early and making sure all community voices are represented in the discussion lays the groundwork for future success, activating your network with a focus on innovation and inclusion at every step.
Select the best model for your community. There are many ways to bring broadband access to your community. After assessing the landscape and engaging the community, local governments should assess the viability of possible models of broadband adoption:
Municipal broadband. Local governments fund local broadband deployments. Chattanoog is one of the first cities in the country to offer gigabit speeds4 to its residents and is among the most notable examples of successful municipal broadband implementation.
Chattanooga's community-owned Electric Power Board (EPB) launched its gigabit service in 2009, following a $300 million network modernization investment.
Private Internet service providers. Communities interested in expanding broadband access may be surprised to learn that Internet service providers like AT&T and Comcast are already offering high-speed connections in a growing number of places across the nation.
It's important to map the existing services offered in your community before exploring options or approaching other private providers in order to avoid later service-area conflicts. Your community’s large anchor institutions, including universities, museums, or libraries, may already be connected to private high-speed connections and may be able to help you map existing connections.
Cooperative models. As more cities and counties seek out ways to upgrade their broadband infrastructure and to offer high-speed Internet, creative public-private partnership models are emerging. Internet service providers, for example, are leasing existing utility-built networks in select cities in order to provide broadband service.
This is often known as a "dark fiber" network. In this case, the utility that built the infrastructure gets the added benefit of being able to use the network for metering, managing peak hours, and other functions while customers benefit from the new option for high-speed Internet service.
Each cooperative partnership between a community and a private sector provider will develop differently and present unique opportunities and constraints. In every case, however, it is critical that the agreement between the locality and the Internet service providers be thoughtfully co-designed, accounting for such day-to-day issues as network maintenance and repair responsibilities, as well as for larger community issues that can include digital inclusion, public access points, and anchor organization connection prioritization.
Identify a backbone organization. Building a broadband network and activating it to benefit the community it serves are two necessarily intertwined but distinct endeavors.
After the network launches, it is critical to make sure that an individual or organization continues to think about how to leverage the new infrastructure, how to avoid potential pitfalls of expanding digital divides, and how to engage the new gigabit community in the nation’s growing gigabit ecosystem.
In short, a new gigabit community needs a backbone organization not just to drive the implementation of a broadband network but also to make sure that the realities of this new network live up to its promise.
In some places, like the Kansas City metropolitan area with Kansas City Digital Drive, the backbone organization has remained consistent throughout the building and activation phases of the network. In other cities like Chattanooga, however, the backbone agency has shifted as the needs of the community have changed.
Initially built and driven by EPB, the Chattanooga Forward5 Technology, Gig, and Entrepreneurship Task Force recommended the creation of a separate organization to lead Chattanooga's gigabit ecosystem building efforts. Today, the Enterprise Center6 is charged with leading the city's efforts at building gigabit applications, building an innovation economy, and bridging the digital divide.
Whether it’s the same backbone organization who led the drive to get broadband in Kansas City or an entirely new organization like the one in Chattanooga, it's vital that there is a driving force behind helping the community to activate and leverage its new infrastructure.
Measure outcomes and share successful practices. Local broadband leaders should continually document their challenges and successes in expanding broadband access and share best practices and lessons learned within their communities as well as with other communities.
This peer-to-peer information sharing will support the development and improvement of broadband access initiatives across the country, and ultimately help to close geographic access gaps.
By working openly and sharing lessons learned across communities, people can help build a national broadband ecosystem that is innovative and inclusive. This openness is all the more important because expanding broadband access is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. There are many possible models:
Fiber for all: Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga is currently the only city in the United States where 1 gigabit-per-second speeds are available to every home and business in the legally available service area covered by EPB.
More than 150,000 homes and businesses are connected to Chattanooga’s pervasive broadband network. High-speed service was immediately made available to every part of EPB’s service area from launch.
The Fiberhood: Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. Google Fiber launched the first Google Fiber City via the “Fiberhood” model. Once enough customers in a given neighborhood had expressed interest in the service, the infrastructure was built and that community was connected.
Over time, more neighborhoods beyond the initial fiberhoods were connected as were major anchor organizations. This model is interesting in that it creates gigabit ecosystem “hot zones” within a community and creates opportunities for clustering network activation activities in a limited geographic area.
Anchor-led rollout: Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland's OneCommunity, a nonprofit organization, has led the rollout of an ultra-high-speed, open, and neutral fiber network to hospitals, academic institutions, and government organizations across northeast Ohio. This anchor organization-driven network now spans 24 counties and 2,500 miles.
Network activation and community engagement: Austin, Texas. Austin understood the importance of beginning the activation, access, and inclusion conversation early on and of continuing this conversation well beyond initial broadband implementation.
The city got ahead of the curve by building its gigabit playbook in the form of a citywide digital inclusion strategic plan. This plan articulated Austin’s values and goals for building a digitally literate gigabit city and has helped to guide how the community’s broadband network has been built and implemented.
This early value articulation has been key to shaping the network and to laying the groundwork for a successful community gigabit innovation ecosystem. Ongoing reporting on and tracking of the plan’s metrics ensures continued stakeholder buy-in and fidelity to community vision in implementation.
As the world moves toward an even more connected future, it becomes increasingly important for local government leaders to play an active role in closing the digital divide and bringing the benefits of broadband access to all.
Lindsay Frost is program director, Mozilla's Gigabit Hive Initiative, Mountain View, California (firstname.lastname@example.org). Michael Baskin is chief policy officer, Chattanooga, Tennessee (email@example.com). Jelani Newton is the former director of survey research, ICMA, Washington, D.C.
Endnotes and Resources:
1 https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC166A1.pdf, FCC 2016 Broadband Progress Report, page 34, "Americans without Access to Fixed Advanced Telecommunications Capability."
2 https://apps.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC166A1.pdf, FCC 2016 Broadband Progress Report, Appendix D, "Americans without Access to Fixed Advanced Telecommunications Capability."
3 Google Fiber is Google's fiber initiative, which began in Kansas City. Google Fiber offers connection speeds beginning at 1000Mbps.
4 Gigabit speeds are defined as 1000Mbps. At gigabit speeds, a full digital movie file will download in about 120 seconds.