The Business Case for Longmont, CO’s City-Owned Broadband

Longmont, CO has the opportunity to launch itself squarely into a digital communications leadership position among U.S. cities. IF its citizens can beat back the latest attack from the Evil Empire, in this case with Comcast in the role of Darth Vader, and the storm troopers crouched in a hastily conceived vehicle called No Blank Check.

The set up here is simple (cue  serene music, pop up panoramic of sleepy bedroom community). Longmont is a forward-looking community, as typified by being declared an “All-America City” by the National Civic League in 2006, a recognition for communities whose citizens work together to identify and tackle community-wide challenges and achieve uncommon results.

One such achievement was to build a fiber network several years ago. Unfortunately in that period (cue sinister music), the Emperor’s senate allies in the state legislature passed a law that requires communities to get voter approval before they can run a network service.

Longmont, feeling their best interests lie in riding the current broadband push, put a ballot measure up for next month (segue to brassy Jedi music). In a stroke of serendipity, the city’s local WiFi provider recently defaulted on mondo tax payments, so the City took over the network until they can decide how to make this resource work for them. This gives the city a great one-two broadband punch capability.

But wait! (you guessed it – cue sinister music, heavy DV breathing) Once the ballot measure was approved over the objections of the local Comcast lawyer, said lawyer starts No Blank Check, a “citizens” group to save Longmont from the fiscal ee-vil of the Jedi, eh, city-owned broadband. Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association’s promptly pours $150,000 into the group, and away we go with the usual campaign of distorted facts, twisted logic and baseless fear mongering. 

Striking back at the Empire

Let’s put the Empire’s negative PR machine in its place. 

The argument that, by default, all governments cannot run effectively a broadband network service is totally false. Dozens of towns, counties and regions efficiently operate networks that are financially sustained through services sold to local governments, businesses, medical facilities, educational institutions and individual and residential subscribers.

 The name “No Blank Check” is a joke! It’s implication is that cities risk fiscal irresponsibility by investing in broadband. First, the ballot measure gives Longmont the freedom from the state’s anti-muni network law so they can assess the most sound course of action, and then be in a position to act on that if this is what citizens want to do. That means due diligence, needs analysis and stakeholders’ buy-in, the antithesis of random spending.

Second, there are enough examples of muni-run networks improving government operations, reviving local economies, enhancing education for youths and adults alike and advancing telemedicine to where this isn’t a crap shoot. Community broadband is good business and sound public policy representing a responsible investment of taxpayer dollars.  

Incumbents like Comcast claim muni networks create an un-fair playing field. If I ran a bezillion-dollar company and a small town of 48,000 such as Wilson, NC with no prior technology business expertise, built a network 10 times faster than my best offering, I’d be embarrassed. What’s unfair is Comcast, after repeatedly failing to adequately serve the broadband needs of the community, will spend big bucks to subvert the will of a community that is able to do what the incumbents can’t or won’t.  

Incumbent astroturf groups like No Blank Check claim city-run networks are not profitable. But this plays on emotion rather than the reality that community networks don’t have the same profit metrics as incumbents. Wilson’s network is working towards a 12-year return on its investment. Incumbents can barely  think beyond a quarterly ROI. Many community networks exist to break even on operating costs, the infrastructure investment being viewed as similar to paying for new sidewalks or water systems. ROI comes from the economic development and hard-to-quantify benefits these networks deliver.

Detractors also talk about the failures of municipal wireless as examples of why city-run networks are a bad idea, usually citing Philadelphia, San Francisco, Portland, OR and a few others that folded operations. But what they don’t tell you is that private companies owned and operated almost every city-wide network that failed. Longmont’s WiFi network had two successive private owners and look at the results.  

Government-owned networks have a lot to recommend them. They also demand proper previous planning. But plenty of roadmaps to successful, financially sustainable community-owned networks are out there (here are 10 such networks – http://bit.ly/Ejg6L), so Longmont will have quite a few guiding lights if they can just get the Empire out of the way (segue to triumphant Jedi-in-the-house music).

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