What We Can Learn from the Broadband GSD Ten

Granted, the Broadband GSD Ten is just a Snapshot of the dozens of communities running or partnering to run successful broadband networks. However, having observed this world up close and personal for four years, I can draw some lessons here for those who have applied for stimulus grants and those queuing up the Round 2 funding process.

1. It’s time for a strong push for public-owned networks, and networks run by public/private partnerships in which local governments are more than window dressing. Going through the list of stimulus applications, it’s uplifting and very telling that so many fall into one of these two categories.

Every time some incumbent or one of their sock puppets goes on record saying that the private sector alone holds the answer for broadband, call ‘em on it and list five or six or ten cases in which local governments are getting stuff done.

2. When you look at the main stakeholder groups whose needs are being met by these networks on the GSD Ten list, it’s pretty clear that these are the end-user organizations that should dictate broadband speeds. Look at how incumbents have bent the FCC’s ear this past week demanding the FCC use speeds lower than even the pathetic 760K in the NOFA to define broadband. Incredible!

You cannot talk about using broadband to advance economic development, telemedicine and all these other profound objectives, and define minimum broadband speed as anything less than multiple megs per second. The future calls for more speed, not less!

3. People wrapped up in the discussion about how do you increase broadband adoption need to contact these governments with successful networks to understand that institutional customers drive adoption. If people can get most of their government services online rather than inline, more individuals will subscribe. If medical facilities use the network to dispense information and services that keep more people healthy, more individuals will subscribe.

We must frame the arguments for broadband stimulus awards and national broadband strategy so they are less about individuals, and more about these major stakeholders who collectively are the foundation of network financial sustainability. Once you meet the needs of these institutional customers, you pay for the network PLUS individual and residential subscriptions increases will follow.

4. Local government needs to step up as the anchor tenant. Most of the GSD Ten identify city and county government as one of the primary stakeholders contributing to the financial sustainability of the network. Just a couple of weeks ago I saw an RFP for a network in which the government said they’re not going to contribute financial resources or be a subscriber to the network.

In the anchor tenant role, local government impacts a network’s success on several important levels. Financially. Influencing the decisions of institutional customers and the business community to become network subscribers. Driving individual and residential adoption.

5. When studying these communities, take note of how you can “leapfrog” technologies to bring broadband to your area. Santa Monica started by using fiber it had at the time to improve the city’s communication infrastructure, then sold excess fiber capacity to businesses to finance network expansion, and now they’re ready to leapfrog into greater buildout of wireless. Allegany and Franklin Counties started with wireless and can leapfrog from this into fiber as they bring in more fiber to facilitate expanding wireless capabilities.

In three or four years, more people will be advancing broadband with the understanding that it’s a hybrid of wired and wireless, which I believe ultimately makes for the best and most comprehensive broadband solutions. But to get there, a lot of you who don’t get stimulus funding and others need to consider the leapfrog approach for the short term, both for fiscal and logistical realities.

6. When you delve into how these GSD Ten communities made their networks successful, it should be clear to those who haven’t caught on yet that you can’t – and shouldn’t – approach ROI the same way private sector companies do. These networks must earn enough to cover a lot of your operating expenses. However, they don’t have stockholder dividends, crushing administrative and operations costs or the marketing burden to become a national playa.

Those incumbents who point out the standard P & L arguments when bashing community networks, and the NOFA rules that reflect this thinking, are trying to force a square peg into a round hole. It doesn’t work that way. Wilson, NC has a 12-year timeline on getting its money back. They and other governments, unlike the private sector, can operate in this financial ROI timeframe because they operate differently. What’s more, every year their communities reap significant financial AND intangible benefits that justify the expense.

There are some other lessons here from this first GSD Ten list. Call me sometime and we can talk about it.

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