Communications Daily: Broadband Entry Seen as Check on Incumbents, But Municipalities Warned of Risk

cdlogoJune 7, from Communications Daily
By David Kaut

New broadband entry or even just the threat of it is spurring incumbent providers to upgrade their high-speed internet services, but municipalities need to think things through before launching their own projects, said speakers on a live-streamed panel at the Mountain Connect session in Keystone, Colorado. They also said an Obama administration effort to push federal agencies and departments to facilitate broad- band deployment will require a “culture change.” In another live-streamed session, a Google Fiber offcial highlighted the company’s efforts to offer broadband connections and services, plus its recommendations for improving municipal processes.

A Democratic Hillary Clinton administration would likely build on President Barack Obama’s initia- tives, said Phil Weiser, executive director of Silicon Flatirons and dean of the University of Colorado Law School, who worked in the Obama administration. With Republican Donald Trump, “you have no idea what you might get,” he said. “Anybody’s guess is as good as mine.”

The broadband deployment threat from cities is an “important check” on incumbents, Weiser said. Incumbents that know municipalities may deploy their own networks are more likely to provide better services, he said. But local authorities have to be very careful about actually building because such efforts are “tricky,” he said, suggesting cities generally should create the conditions for private-sector deployment. “When cities go in to do it themselves, they are playing with re, and sometimes they get burned,” he said. “So, make available the core assets, threaten to do it yourself; before you actually do it, get professional help, stay really nervous. This has blown up, unfortunately.”

There are many models, said Next Century Cities Executive Director Deb Socia. She said cities will often do better focusing on helping industry deploy or striking partnerships. “Do what cities do well, and let providers do what they do well,” she said. But when for-pro t providers aren’t interested, cities need the option of constructing their own systems or edging out beyond their own boundaries where it makes sense. She noted Chattanooga, Tennessee, had sought to expand its gigabit-speed ber service to adjacent communities—including to people who had only dial-up service and were just across a street from the city—but it was blocked by a state law, which the FCC then pre-empted in an order that is being challenged in court.

The University of New Mexico built a microwave network to reach a Zuni community north of Gallup that had no broadband access, said Gil Gonzales, the university’s chief information officer (CIO). “Soon after, we started seeing better competition for services into that community,” and the university is expanding its network to a local diabetes clinic and high school, he said: “So it works in very small places really well.”

Weiser said a “culture change” is needed at federal agencies to make broadband deployment a priority. Federal entities should have chief technology officers or CIOs pushing broadband consideration in deci- sion-making, for instance by ensuring conduits are laid when roads are built, he said. Socia agreed, saying even when the administration’s Broadband Opportunity Council made recommendations, improvements don’t just happen. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which administers much land in Western states, has a key role in helping providers secure access to locations for cell towers, said Kelleigh Cole, director of the Broadband Outreach Center in the Utah governor’s office.

Obstacles to broadband adoption vary, with costs and the need for digital training among them, Socia said. But she said the groups where broadband adoption is low are well known, including seniors, low-income consumers, immigrants and people with disabilities.

Google Fiber is “thrilled” with how its broadband efforts are going, said Brien Bell, the company’s fiber expansion lead-West Region. He said Google Fiber has completed its network construction in Kansas City, Missouri, and is now expanding into surrounding communities. It’s constructing fiber networks, providing broadband services or exploring projects in 22 municipalities around the country. When Google enters a market, incumbents make upgrades that generally double the speeds offered to consumers, he said.

Bell said Google’s gigabit-speed service costs $70 per month, and $130 per month when combined with video service that includes up to 220 high-definition channels, but the company also offers lower-cost, lower-speed options. He said Google underestimated the importance of having a video service option for consumers when it started out. It believes its fiber network can support whatever comes next in pay-TV and internet streaming, he said.

Google continues to build out networks, but it’s pursuing alternative strategies in some communities, including in Huntsville, Alabama, where it’s leasing dark fiber from a municipal utility. In other markets, Google is seeking to lease fiber from existing industry providers, sometimes instead of building a network, sometimes to complement its fiber deployment, Bell said.

Localities can do various things to facilitate deployment, Bell said, starting with “one-touch, make- ready” policies for pole attachments. Instead of having each party with a pole attachment move its lines in sequence to accommodate new lines, localities can streamline an approved contractor to do all the adjustments, he said. Google also advocates “dig smart” policies and “microtrenching” to reduce the amount of traditional trenches that have to be dug for conduits, as well as efforts to streamline local video franchising, including through state processes, he said.

 

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