Craig Settles’ Broadband Question of the Day (August 13)

This question comes from an attendee of my Webinar “Finding the Right Business Model for Community Broadband

What is your take on the Google Fiber project?

In my Webinar on business models a couple of weeks ago, someone sent me this question that I didn’t have time to answer in the session. Right after ending that event I saw the first wave of the Twitter tsunami on the Google-Verizon deal before I even saw the question. I figure today’s a good day to tackle this given that a whole bunch of folks are over at Google protesting the new Evil Empire.

First here are my thoughts the day after the Google Fiber announcement in Ferbruary. But you probably want a take on GF in light of The Deal, right?  Ok, here it is.

Forget for a moment the pain of that perceived – ok, actual – knife in the back of net neutrality. Remember the scene from The Godfather 1 where the Mafioso who planned to whack Michael Corleone gets caught? Before they take him on his final ride, he says, “it’s just business…nothing personal. I like Mikey.”

With regards to fiber – and net neutrality – I believe Google Fiber offers a great lesson in public-private partnerships. From the public sector/community side of the equation, regardless of what potential partners offer when dangling great benefits of the relationship, few things will be as important to you as the contract that binds you and your partners. Communities have a right to be angry when partners let us down,but we should not be shocked when a poor contract or no contract (or regulations) allows partners to let us down.

In the run-up to an agreement with any private-sector entity, spend a lot of time learning in detail their (current and past) business needs, desires and operating issues. For that matter, everyone involved with the broadband project whose day job is not “Corporate Titan” should develop a good grounding in how business in general works. This is important for community broadband and it’s obviously true for net neutrality advocates as well.

It was clear during the height of Google Fiber mania that a lot of communities saw Google as a knight in shining armor, as have net neutrality advocates. They are our champion to give the besieged masses some amount of counterbalancing force in the broadband and net neutrality wars. The company rocks because they’ll provide some lucky few with a brand spanking new gigabit network. These are perceptions that reflect a fair amount of truth – as far as it goes. As far as it goes is to the company’s ability to make a profit. And to that end, don’t you wish Google would stop the BS and tell us that’s what this Verizon dance is all about?

Let me make my point in a way you shouldn’t forget as you move forward to define relationships with private sector partners for community broadband. Or as you work with corporate partners in the pursuit of the public good.

It’s always causes me to shake my head in wonder when I read about someone who bought the farm because they bought a lion or tiger as a cub and the cute-kitty-now-adult-beast decided to eat their owner’s ass. What, were they not awake during those Discovery Channel episodes about beasts of prey!? Yes, their babies are cute as kittens. Yes, constant contact with loving humans can have a calming affect on the big cats’ natural urges. But their dominant, centuries-embedded natural urge is to smack down and eat living things, and if their owners are not careful, they too will become a Darwin Award candidate!

Google, like every other corporate giant and giant-wannabe, has in its corporate genes natural urges that demand it make a profit. If we love them enough (and our best interests align with theirs), contact with us mere consumer, government and small business mortals can have a calming affect, and some of the Googles of the world will make nice with us and not eat us in the pursuit of those natural urges. But when cornered and faced with something standing between them and profits, somebody’s (or some cause such as net neutrality) is likely to get chomped. It’s nothing personal. It’s business. It is also, by the way, the heart of the reason why we need regulations – to protect the many from the predatory nature of the few big cats.

So, how do your protect your community broadband project?  Here are a few steps.

  • Understand thoroughly how your potential partner makes a profit.
  • Understand thoroughly how this broadband project will help them make that profit.
  • Be clear on where their interests and the community’s interests intersect and where they diverge. Build on the former, reconcile the latter – in writing, in the contract – because tradeoffs are critical and you don’t want to trade away too much.
  • Know your partner’s partners and the depth of their relationship. If your potential partner is linked at the hip with an adversary of community broadband, how well do you think your relationship is going to work without an airtight contract?
  • Keep your finger on the pulse of the business communities in which your partner plays. Fewer people would have been as shocked by the Google-Verizon deal if they had followed closely the business implications of Google’s Android efforts.
  • Get a really good lawyer with lots of experience in telecom to write an effin’ great partnership agreement that protects your community from the call of the wild, while ensuring all partners benefit from the deal.

And remember, if your partner does break your heart at some point, it’s just business…nothing personal. Doesn’t make it right, but you think and respond much more effectively when you’re annoyed but not acting in a fiery rage.

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