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Brodkin writes: "State and local governments aren't typically known for leading the way on technology. Remember that West Virginia library that uses a $20,000 router for a building the size of a trailer? But all that's changing fast."

Cities are looking to the future of broadband. (photo: Aurich Lawson/Thinkstock)
Cities are looking to the future of broadband. (photo: Aurich Lawson/Thinkstock)

Fed Up, US Cities Take Steps to Build a Better Broadband

By Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica

28 October 14


Increasingly, cities control their broadband future—with both low- and high-tech methods.

tate and local governments aren't typically known for leading the way on technology. Remember that West Virginia library that uses a $20,000 router for a building the size of a trailer?

But all that’s changing fast, at least at the municipal level—and the demand for broadband is what's driving this shift. No longer content to let residents suffer from poor Internet access, cities and towns saw a need to boost their tech savvy. Now many are partnering with technologists in order to take matters into their own hands.

While some municipalities have taken on the extraordinarily complex task of building their own networks, others have succeeded with lower-tech methods. Streamlining permitting processes and readying public infrastructure has helped some draw in new ISPs such as Google Fiber. Other cities and towns are taking advantage of legal processes to pressure incumbents into offering better and cheaper service. And still other cities are laying fiber conduits every time construction workers dig up the ground for unrelated projects, allowing quicker upgrades from cable and copper. In all these ways, cities and towns are showing that smart management can be just as important as high-tech systems when it comes to making broadband accessible and affordable to everyone.

“Hundreds [of cities and towns] have done something already and hundreds more are evaluating it now and are likely to take action,” Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told Ars. “I think thousands recognize a need but aren’t committed yet.”

Driving fiber fervor

It’s been obvious for years how important Internet access is in modern life and business. But a few new factors have helped convince municipalities that they have to take action now or risk being left behind.

Google Fiber has had an impact far beyond the few cities where it actually exists. “Google gives something credibility. I think all the cities that are not going to get Google investments are recognizing that they need to do something,” Mitchell said.

Besides the Google effect, growing frustration over a lack of competition is fueling city efforts, with the pending Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger having “set off alarm bells in recognizing that things are getting worse in terms of monopoly,” according to Mitchell.

More than 1,100 cities applied for Google Fiber in 2010, but only Kansas City; Austin, Texas; and Provo, Utah were successful.

“We all competed for Google Fiber,” Raleigh, North Carolina CIO Gail Roper told Ars. “That got our heads going in terms of potential benefits and we just felt like we were the right region to push it forward.” After losing out on Google Fiber, Raleigh teamed up with Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Winston-Salem to form the North Carolina Next Generation Network. The area now has a deal with AT&T to bring gigabit fiber to residents.

Cities and towns have come to understand that “having world-class bandwidth is maybe even more important than having an NFL football team,” said Blair Levin, a former FCC official who oversaw development of the National Broadband Plan under President Obama and is now executive director of the Gig.U fiber initiative.

Levin has gone around the country helping cities understand why action at the local level is so important. While Internet service providers often don’t compete against each other in individual cities and towns, the cities and towns are in effect competing against each other because broadband infrastructure fuels growth.

“I was in front of College Station, Texas, and I remember a city councilor saying something to the effect of ‘Oh I get what you’re saying—our cable company doesn’t compete with South Korea Telecom, but we compete with Seoul, Korea,’” Levin told Ars.

Communities are recognizing that broadband "impacts their ability to do everything, whether it be traffic control or schools or civic engagement,” he said. “The biggest change is people are starting to notice how things they do today affect the network they have 10 years from now. You can’t do this overnight. Networks take a lot of time to plan, engineer, and build.”

One problem, many solutions

So what strategies are cities and towns using now to build for that future network? There are a handful of reoccurring approaches.

"Dig once": Municipalities with “dig once” policies require workers to install conduit for fiber cable any time the ground is dug up for electrical and sewer projects or other work. This dramatically reduces the price for laying fiber and speeds up deployment. While cities can deliver service over the fiber themselves, it’s a valuable asset even if they don’t because it can be leased to private telecoms and help lure new providers. Boston and other cities have been doing this for years—San Francisco is just getting started on it now.

“'Dig once' is a bare minimum,” Mitchell said. “Cities need to recognize that even if they don’t want to be an ISP they have to make it easier for other entities to deliver services, and that means 'dig once.'”

Playing hardball: Comcast is going city to city to get approval for its purchase of Time Warner Cable, but not every local government is giving in easily. In Lexington, Kentucky, officials are demanding commitments to improve customer service in the cable franchise agreement, which has lapsed and must be renewed before it can be transferred from TWC. In Worcester, MA, the City Council has declared that it doesn’t want Comcast coming into town. These actions won’t prevent the merger on their own, but they could give the federal government more reason to block it or require extensive customer protections as a condition for approval.

Changing the law: Community-owned networks have helped in cities and towns that couldn’t attract sufficient investment from private ISPs, but they’ve been held back by laws in 20 states that restrict their growth. EPB, a community-owned electric utility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the City of Wilson, North Carolina, have asked the Federal Communications Commission to preempt state laws that prevent them from offering Internet service in surrounding towns that have requested it.

Getting infrastructure ready for fiber: Cities are ticking off the items on Google’s “Fiber Ready Checklist” to get their streets ready for a big upgrade. This is as simple as “provid[ing] accurate information about local infrastructure like utility poles, conduit and existing water, gas and electricity lines so we’d know where to efficiently place every foot of fiber.” Google also asks cities to simplify permitting processes and provide access to existing infrastructure to minimize the need for duplicate utility poles and roadwork. The Google Fiber checklist is helpful for attracting any ISP, not just Google.

RFPs: You don’t get what you don’t ask for, so cities have issued RFPs (requests for proposals) and RFIs (requests for information) to get the attention of ISPs and find out what cities need to do to lure a new provider. Louisville, Kentucky; College Station, Texas;  Los Angeles; and numerous others have gone this route.

Public Wi-Fi: While perhaps less crucial than a fast, wired connection to every home, Wi-Fi in government buildings and public places offers a convenience to many and can help poor people who can't afford home Internet service get online. Boston and New York are among the cities setting up Wi-Fi networks aimed at low-income areas.

Teaming up: Cities and towns from across the country are meeting with each other to share best practices. The latest example is Next Century Cities, a coalition of more than 30 cities trying to upgrade to gigabit service. Cities from Idaho, Indiana, Texas, Massachusetts, Colorado, Illinois, Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Kentucky, Washington, California, Oregon, North Carolina, Maine, Maryland, and Minnesota are involved.

“Cities are looked at to make sure there is sufficient infrastructure and quality of life,” Levin said. “Broadband is going to be one of those things. You can’t have a world-class city without world-class broadband. But the market dynamics don’t necessarily drive that, and they have to figure out a way of changing those market dynamics.”

Like roads, broadband is critical infrastructure

Louisville, KY is one of those cities that was spurred to take action by Google Fiber. “When we were passed over by Google twice, the mayor [Greg Fischer] asked me to take it into our own hands and start working on it rather than relying on some faith-based initiative. We moved into proactive mode,” Ted Smith, chief of Louisville’s Civic Innovation office, told Ars.

Broadband has to be treated as critical infrastructure for any city, if not a full-blown utility, Smith said. “I don’t call it a utility, I call it infrastructure. Roads are infrastructure. Electricity is infrastructure. It’s important infrastructure, critical infrastructure. I don’t know how you can be a 21st century city without having a contemporary telecommunications infrastructure.”

Louisville issued an RFI and then an RFP, ultimately awarding fiber franchises to three vendors, two of which (SiFi Networks and BluegrassNet) plan residential deployments. BluegrassNet plans a small deployment, while SiFi Networks is trying to get financing for an extensive urban buildout. Attracting these companies required changing local rules, including boosting franchise terms from 15 to 20 years and reducing financial requirements for construction bonds.

Telecoms have a lot of choices of where to do business, with regulations varying widely by location, so “we need to constantly raise the flag and say, ‘we’re open for business,’ that our city government will be very business-friendly,” Smith said. At the same time, Louisville didn’t make any concessions that would let private companies take advantage of taxpayers, according to Smith.

Austin, Texas took a similar tack and was able to get Google Fiber to come into town. Google's decision to build in Austin was followed by AT&T rolling out fiber to residents there. Austin, with its 885,000 residents and reputation for being tech savvy, has built-in advantages that smaller cities and rural areas don’t enjoy. But even Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell told Ars that not long ago he had only one option for Internet service at his home—Time Warner Cable. Now he can choose from TWC or AT&T, and Google says it will start signing customers up by the end of this year.

“The day after Google made their announcement a year and a half ago, I got phone calls from both Time Warner people and AT&T saying they were going to do the same thing,” Leffingwell said. “I would say that was not a coincidence.”

The biggest obstacle in getting Google Fiber was “the difficulty in acquiring the right of way permits to actually lay the fiber,” Leffingwell said. “Some of it is on telephone poles and some of it is underground. To do that part of it is very time-consuming.”

The problem is “purely bureaucracy,” though city officials were able to make the process go faster, he said. “I think that generally there’s a contrast between the way things are done in the private sector and public sector,” he said. “Sometimes it’s aggravating and hard for people in the private sector who are used to making decisions and moving ahead a lot faster. Most government organizations just don’t operate that way yet.”

Being open for business isn’t always enough

Putting up an “open for business” sign isn’t always enough. In Lexington, KY, officials are going through the Google Fiber checklist and drafting an RFI to find out what companies might be interested in deploying gigabit service. But in the meantime, the city lacks a competitive broadband market and is trying to get the incumbent Time Warner Cable to offer better customer service. The franchise agreement expired in 2012 and has to be renegotiated before the TWC license can be transferred to Comcast and then to Charter as part of a complicated merger and divestment agreement.

“We’re really demanding that they not weaken the customer service provisions,” Scott Shapiro, senior advisor to Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, told Ars. “In terms of customer service, we had a pretty good agreement before. We’re not asking for anything new. We’re just asking that they not weaken the provisions. That’s really where the stalemate is.”

Lexington officials want TWC’s retail store to operate for the longer hours it was required to under the expired agreement so that customers can get there on weekends and evenings again. The city also wants a commitment that the cable company will continue to operate a local studio for public access channels.

City officials have received hundreds of complaints from customers about poor service. Those have included equipment problems and outages, including during the US-Germany World Cup soccer match. Because of a lack of competition, residents complain that service is too expensive and slow.

“What we’re hearing in Lexington is an outcry from people and businesses around these issues and we’re determined to do something about it,” Shapiro said.

One concern will be making sure new ISPs don’t build in only the most affluent areas of the city. “The mayor has said he is concerned about the digital divide [between rich and poor],” Shapiro said. “We’re not interested in having a company just come in and cherry pick neighborhoods. We’re looking for infrastructure that will benefit the city long-term.”

The ultimate solution? For some, city-owned networks

It’s these types of concerns that have led some municipalities to build their own networks. That’s what Wilson, North Carolina did in 2008 by creating Greenlight, a community-owned fiber-to-the-home network with just over 7,000 customers. “We attempted to develop partnerships with the private sector, and those did not pan out,” Greenlight operations manager Will Aycock told Ars.

Deploying hundreds of miles of fiber was difficult and cost millions of dollars, but it was worth it. Now, surrounding communities want service from Greenlight but can’t get it because of restrictive state laws that Wilson has asked the FCC to preempt. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has pledged to do just that, potentially allowing Greenlight to expand.

“With the lack of options for their citizens, and in particular with the lack of high-capacity next generation networks, [nearby communities] were reaching out to us to see if we could assist in bringing them higher capacity broadband,” Aycock said. “This is absolutely infrastructure that communities need to have a strategy around.”

A boom in Internet-connected devices has made broadband even more important since Greenlight's birth. “When we launched, the iPhone was just coming out,” Aycock said. “You look at the proliferation of connected devices, the Internet of things, the proliferation of people creating content, where the Internet is going from being a largely consumption-based communication system to more of a collaboration and sharing system. This requires high-bandwidth connections in both directions. From the technical side, that drives [community broadband efforts].”

Most city governments would rather have private Internet service providers build and upgrade networks than to operate their own, but cities are increasingly willing to consider the public option. “Every city always has to look at that option,” Smith said. Louisville isn’t planning to build its own network today, but it continually examines “what the pros and cons are in the event the private sector doesn’t move into the market to provide cost-effective services.”

“We see more municipal fiber projects going on, and you do have to ask the question, "If a private market solution doesn’t arise, is there ever a role for a public answer?” he said. “You have to ask yourself that question every month. It’s an important form of infrastructure for our business community, an important form of infrastructure for our citizens.” your social media marketing partner
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