The 6 Hurdles Facing Your Municipal Broadband Project

Technologists present a dose of reality, based on their experience, on establishing municipal broadband Internet service. Read about six hurdles, and get their practical advice for moving forward.

The following question about municipal broadband was posted on Quora:

“What conditions in law, area to be served, organization, and community support are necessary for successful municipal broadband Internet service provision and operation? Some cities operate dark fiber networks (cf. Stokab A/B in Stockholm, Sweden), others operate their own Cable provider Internet (cf. San Bruno, CA; see San Bruno Cable TV). What conditions did these cities set for success of Municipal Broadband?”

Read answers in Part 1, What is Needed for Successful Municipal Broadband Internet Service?

Stan Hanks, CTO of Columbia Ventures Corp., answered February 27, 2015:

I’ve been involved in several municipal broadband ventures, and they’ve all been unparalleled disasters.

Here are some key learnings:

1) It’s bloody expensive to build out, and PEOPLE ALMOST NEVER VOTE FOR HIGHER TAXES.

2) It’s always, ALWAYS more expensive to build out than you thought it was going to be, even if you were conservative on the original estimate. Which means you have to go back to the voters again. That’s where at least three of the efforts died.

3) Being a Civil Service job, your hiring pool is effectively the people who couldn’t get a job at the DMV. You can rarely pay competitive wages, particularly for the alpha technologists you’ll need, even if you offer great benefits. So you need rocket scientists, but you get shoe salesmen. Unfortunately, you also have a shoe salesman as the GM/CTO/COO/HMFIC – because you can’t recruit the talent you need there either, so they don’t KNOW they’re running on 3 cylinders instead of 8…

4) You have very, very limited opportunity to explore any benefits of operating at scale. Whether you 10 customers or 10,000, there’s a lower limit to how many customer support and network engineering staff you need.  I ran Enron Broadband on a dozen network engineers and about three dozen operations engineers; you’d probably almost need that to run a muni broadband effort in any of the top 100 MSAs.

5) You have competition in unexpected places. Back then, it was things like relatively underutilized cable franchises being sold to very large MSOs who decided to offer cable modem service. Today, it’s LTE wireless providers who could change pricing and data limits and completely gut your customer base.

6) Speaking of customers, you have to get them. For things like power and water, you sort of have a captive market. For Internet, you have to advertise, sell, satisfy, retain – all things that government organizations have ZERO experience at doing.

I could go on, but you get the drift.

If I were going to try to do this, and be successful at it, I’d

  • Pick a community which was highly desirable as a lifestyle destination – a place that I could get the people that I needed psyched up about living, particularly with awesome broadband
  • Start with figuring out who the entrenched interests in the community were, and what their currency in such a transaction might be – could be more work for local construction and electrical companies, could be jobs for new high school graduates, could be opportunity to expand tax base by bringing in new industry – all that will vary by community
  • Figure out what my long-haul interconnect strategy is going to be. Am I going to run my own fiber network to connect to some upline ISPs for transit? Am I going to try to get some of those guys to build to me? Am I going to try to build to Facebook/Google/Amazon/Akamai network endpoints?? And how much is this going to cost me to build, equip, and operate?
  • Move to the community in question, and as a resident work the local politics really hard, making sure I knew what currency the local government officials traded in as well
  • Figure out how to do a buried HFC or licensed spectrum wireless buildout that would give 100% penetration, but plan it in layers, with coverage for “political hot spots” – hospitals, schools, certain neighborhoods, etc – done first, so I could show “operational” in under a year from start
  • Seek federal and private foundation grant money to kick it off
  • From a pre-funded position, market to the voting population the benefits of having massive local broadband, and push for a funding referendum for the balance of the first two phases at least
  • Execute, and just fucking kill it. it’s like pinball – you play, you win, you get to play again. With the right team, enough funding, enough locals making enough money from the build, enough locals making money from the end result, and a clear focus on execution, you could make this work.

Unfortunately, almost zero of the people who have tried this have the chops to pull it off. They’re mostly mid-career civil servants who read about the benefits of universal broadband, and say “hey, we can do that!”

No so much, as it turns out.

Carlos Ribeiro, Programmer & Network Architect at Algar, answered March 9, 2015:

Stan Hanks’ answer is great and in many ways resembles my own experience – and note that I live in Brazil where he (probably) lives in the US, which I think is quite telling. So I’ll just tell my own experience.

  1. I’ve heard about literally dozens of projects for municipal broadband over the past 10+ years. However, just a small share of such projects were ever deployed, and most of those deployed were severely limited in scope and technology.
  2. All projects start the same way. Someone in the city administration hears about public funding for broadband service; they go find someone in the administration that is supposed to know how to do it (usually, someone on the IT staff); there’s always someone willing to say ‘yes’ because this means a bigger budget and a visible project. That’s where the problems begin.
  3. As soon as the project get started, most municipalities realize that the project is much bigger, and much harder than expected. Everyone wants access, there’s not enough money for everyone, and the cities own regulations get in the way. It’s often harder for the municipality itself to get approval for things like digging trenches or installing towers. Cities can’t spend money leasing areas for towers and often have to resort to non-optimal locations in the buildings they already have, making coverage spotty and inefficient.
  4. All the points mentioned by Stan Hanks regarding the team are true to a varying degree. Here in my own city, which is a relatively big city (2.5 million people) the municipal IT company is relatively well staffed to handle a more limited network (see below). However, they’re badly understaffed to handle anything bigger than that.
  5. Last, thanks to the speed at which political decisions are made and implemented, such a project often passes through several administrations. Each change means revision in scope and, in some cases, cancellation of the project (specially if the opposition wins).
  6. In all projects that I heard of that were actually deployed, a few key buildings get 1 Gbps or 10 Gbps connectivity. All the rest get much lower speeds (typically in the range of 10 Mbps) using wireless technologies. That’s because the project gets cheaper and also because it’s a lot faster to deploy during a single term.

All that said, the only consistent ‘success case’ that I’ve seen is for a very limited service with the following features:

  • Optical backbone connecting only the main buildings;
  • Fixed broadband wireless service for schools, municipal hospitals and healthcare centers (the towers are often located in these places, due the difficulty in finding space elsewhere);
  • Limited wireless coverage in public spaces (possibly including schools and healthcare centers mentioned above).

p.s. A few very small cities with good budgets do manage to do a little bit more and include public access for residents with a wider coverage. But there’s the exception rather than the rule, and it depends on a very small city, with a good budget, good topology (for wireless coverage), and support from the citizens. Not easy to get everything right.

Read about three cities that created the playbook for civic-technology initiatives that improve citizen engagement when they launched municipal broadband initiatives:

Studies: How Tech Can Improve Citizen Engagement

Explore further expert insights into launching successful municipal broadband projects:

What is Needed for Successful Municipal Broadband Internet Service? (Part 1)

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EfficientGov Staff

EfficientGov is an independent information service providing innovative solutions to fiscal and operational challenges facing cities and towns around the world.