Tips for Maximizing Service Providers’ Role in Community Broadband

A mantra of self-sufficiency I’m passing on to communities that want better broadband is simple: “If broadband is to be, it is up to me.” With Congress’ latest move to create a legal framework for the FCC to implement its National Broadband Plan, the smoke of delaying tactics and the mirrors of incumbents’ PR trickery portends a rough future for community leaders.

As I stated in RCR Wireless:

The good news is that this issue of FCC authority is going to Congress. The bad news is, this issue is going to Congress where it could easily die the death of 1000 cuts. The best thing that could happen is Congress mandates the FCC, as a regulatory agency, has the authority to make whatever decisions it deems necessary to assure we get better broadband. The probable reality is that a bunch of people who wouldn’t know a byte if it bit them in the butt are going to try to tie the agency’s hands to the point of eliminating their effectiveness.

If it wasn’t clear earlier, there now should be no doubt that to a large extent, those of you in the trenches leading broadband efforts have to grab the bull by the horns to get the solutions you want. With luck, the FCC will be able to craft useful supporting policy to help you. One major component of the project you should address early is private sector involvement.

I recently attended the California Emerging Technology Fund’s (CETF) Rural Connections Workshop. A panel of ISPs, all but one small entities, offered useful advice on maximizing providers if you have them.  The panelists were:

  • Philip Arndt, Comcast
  • Chip Carman, Spiral Internet
  • Ben Hulet, Mother Lode Internet
  • Mike Ireton, Rural Broadband Now
  • Michael Ort, Praxis
  • John Paul, Spiral Internet
  • Mary-Lou Smulders, IP Networks
  • Tom West, CENIC

The following are summaries of some of their main points broken down into three categories: 1) communities’ roles, 2) establishing rules and laws, and 3) money/financial concerns.

Communities’ roles

  • If you have a master plan for your community that includes business and residential building development projects, add requirements for fiber to be built into these structures. This should apply to all public works projects actually. As part of the master plan, communities need a checklist of broadband tasks they should address.
  • Along with a checklist, you should also include samples of resolutions, broadband right of way rules, possible local ordinances, RFPs, etc. so people have guides for creating the documents necessary during broadband implementation.
  • Vendor collaboration with local government officials is important, but so too is getting various constituents within communities to work with each other. A cohesive effort from the community makes for a better environment for the provider to work and get things done.
  • The first part of collaboration between the community and the provider is to get the partners to identify the various grants that are available to help fund the effort, and for each to help with the process for getting those grants. We also look to community leaders to educate us on all the local issues that will impact the ability to design, build and manage the network.
  • Everything that leads to a network’s success revolves around getting customers. Tell us where you expect them to come from. In some places we have found it difficult to get communities to commit to buying broadband services. The local government should plan to be a customer.
  • To be successful you have to look at local solutions and advocate for local providers. Remote executives can’t support this broadband business with the same ability to meet local needs. Also, you want to keep the dollars you spend for broadband local.
  • Work together with providers to find a path to broadband success. Make the local provider your partner in meeting local needs. Quite often they can add a better perspective than national providers.

Establishing rules and laws

  • Government agencies can help us (the providers) by doing things such as allowing us to use towers to support our infrastructure, and looking at revising laws including building codes that restrict towers.
  • The best technology and business solutions are not a set of regulations. The agencies giving out money need to get people on staff who better understand the technology and business issues that are involved so they establish guidelines that are favorable to everyone’s success.
  • It would be good if people could participate in the FCC rule making procedures for Universal Service Fund reform. Rural communities need to combine efforts and form or use existing groups to advocate on everyone’s behalf in D.C.

Money/financial issues

  • Rural communities need to get together with local or state administrators and agencies that can get them introductions to key people in the Federal agencies that are providing grant money. Maybe CETF can help with this.
  • When making budgetary and financial decisions on issues such as subscriber fees, focus on the value of the broadband services, not the price. Stop looking for cheapest solutions. Understand the economic development impacts, the importance of broadband to education. Be realistic about the cost of builouts.
  • You, the communities, may have the resources for financing the network: block grants, bond offerings and so forth. You may need a community or agency partner to help you leverage these resources. Take care of getting this first and then go to providers.
  • Providers have to be very careful about which grants they pursue because some can cost more in staff time to get, or the expense of meeting reporting requirements, than the value of the grant. Choose wisely.
  • If a local provider can go to a local source for creative low-interest financing, this would be preferred in many cases. This would accelerate network projects in the same manner as RUS’ standard funding programs.
  • Communities should consider there can be statewide single-purpose infrastructure for healthcare, public safety, middle mile networks to link libraries and school districts, etc. already being planned or funded. Think locally, but also think globally about how you can tap into these projects. For example, finding a source of cheap backhaul would be great. Paying incumbents to use fiber costs an arm and a leg.
  • A chunk of money being spent for research into users’ needs can be saved if local providers already know the market needs.

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