5 themes observed in broadband initiatives across “Middle America”

Local communities in Middle America are showing what needs to happen to make “Internet for all” financially feasible on a global scale, this post elaborates 5 themes I observed at the Broadband Communities Conference held in Ontario CA (Oct 2018)

When I first shared with my friends and family that I will quit my career to make internet access affordable for all (c. March 2016), a good friend joked with me saying he always knew I was a “commie” and reminded me of this quote by Vladimir Lenin (1920).

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1. Broadband is not a partisan issue

Tune into CNN or Fox News and it seems that Republicans and Democrats are ready to annihilate each other. There is no doubt that America is more polarized today than years past but when it comes to bringing high quality internet access to ignored areas, political ideologies become secondary.

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2. Local government involvement ensures community buy-in and enhances Internet adoption rates

Lloyd Levine shared findings of his research paper in which he draws an important distinction between broadband “access” and “adoption”. He goes on to define what “meaningful internet access” is and suggests that smartphones by themselves are not sufficient to provide meaningful internet access.

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As a result of misaligned incentives, 30% of Californians lack meaningful internet access.

Lloyd Levine’s experiences as a California state law maker was in stark contrast to Joe Knapp’s experience from Sandy Oregon. Joe said that if SandyNet has an operational or service issue, he starts getting messages immediately from people he sees all the time at the grocery store, at school or at any community event. The case of SandyNet is quite inspiring especially considering the city of Sandy has a population of under 10,000!

“We’re able to operate very lean because my service footprint is Sandy and my staff all live and work in Sandy, so we’re able to operate in a different manner than a lot of those companies (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast etc) are”

Avenues to explore based on this theme: The biggest deployment in Middle America that I know of has 175,000 people (Chattanooga, TN) and the smallest with under 10,000 people. Beyond a certain size, any effort loses the “local” touch, but what is that size?

3. “If you build it, they will come” is a fallacy, spelling out impact and describing applications is essential

Building open access infrastructure is just one part of the equation, spelling out precisely what infrastructure can do increases stakeholder alignment. Not every application can be envisioned from the get go but allocating time to imagine applications and quantify benefits increase likelihood of success. Katie Espeseth, VP of New Products at Electric Power Board (EPB) presented Chattanooga’s story.

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4. Fiber is (most likely) future proof but conduit has often made all the difference

My favorite slide from the conference was presented by Joanne Hovis, CEO of CTC Technologies which showed capabilities of different communication technologies and thanks to an awesome search engine like Google I’ve been able to locate that slide without bothering Joanne!

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Data throughput capacity of optical modules

There is such a thing as bad broadband project!

Conduit is a tube or pipe through which multiple other pipes can pass. Cities which had conduit found that deploying fiber was quite cost effective.

5. Customer service is a critical success factor, but a monopoly owning the customer relationship is not the “only” option

Everyone present agreed that customer service is critical, however, not all local broadband initiatives are consumer facing ie last mile served by the municipality or cooperative. Some have chosen (eg Ammon Idaho) to take a wholesale approach where infrastructure acts as an enabler. In contrast, EPB feels very strongly about owning the customer relationship themselves.

  1. The utility infrastructure maintenance and operational costs are paid by the property owners with access to the utility via a monthly utility service fee. It is important to note, that under the OAVI model, the utility service is virtualized infrastructure.
  2. Services such as the Internet are delivered across the OAVI with an agreement between the provider and the end user. In this instance the end user is the service provider’s customer. When the end user desires a service other than his or her own, the OAVI model puts the end user in the middle of the network service provider and the infrastructure owner, thereby improving consumer choice and control.

Acknowledgments

I am very grateful to Jim Baller of Baller, Stokes & Lide for inviting me to the BBC Magazine conference and for being a champion of affordable broadband for majority of his career.

I believe that you owe yourself an incredible life.

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