TMCnews Featured Article
October 19, 2009
Longmont, Col. vs. The Empire: Latest Flashpoint in the Muni Broadband Battles
By Craig Settles, Founder and President, Successful.com
Longmont, Col. 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 Empire, in this case with Comcast (News - Alert) in the role of Darth Vader, and the storm troopers crouched in a hastily conceived vehicle called No Blank Check.
Today seems like a good day to neuter one of the biggest false arguments from the storm troopers because you’ll hear it every time a city’s on the verge of breaking free of the ills of the Empire. But first, a brief history.
(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, an award 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. So the fiber network sits idle.
Longmont has a ballot measure up for next month’s election that will return the city’s rights to determine if it wants to use its network to provide services unavailable or unaffordable from the Empire (segue to brassy Jedi music). Recently the city’s local WiFi (News - Alert) provider defaulted on major tax payments, so the city took over the network until they can decide how to make this resource work for them. If the ballot measure passes, the city gets 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.
The Emperor Is Nekkid as a Jaybird
A lot of No Blank Check’s argument (any Incumbent-funded Astroturf group, really) is that municipalities can’t run broadband networks effectively. Consider these stories that put the lie to these claims.
Santa Monica, Calif. is a southern California town about the same size as Longmont. The city government had old, slow moving communication technology, but no money in the budget for new technology. So the city’s IT department pooled money they were already paying for voice and data services and used this capital to build a fiber network and implement new technology such as better switches that allowed for additional savings.
By switching fiber for the old systems they realized a $750,000 savings, all of which stayed in IT’s budget. The ongoing savings fund other innovations, such as hot zones for free wireless access.
The fiber network also had excess bandwidth, which the city used to provide large numbers of community sites with free wireless access. They sold dark fiber to corporations, reaching a point where the service sells on its own. The network is growing all over the city using private companies’ money. The city generates more revenue to expand the network for its use. The IT budget is self-sustaining and the department has $2.5 million in capital.
The city of Wilson, N.C., half the size of Longmont, built a fiber network using mostly existing internal staff and consulting firm Uptown Services for guidance and Quanta Services to construct network distribution points. They are successfully selling 10 mbps services at a lower price than Time Warner’s (News - Alert) 10 mbps service, and services up to 100 mbps that Time Warner can’t even match. They have a 12-year payback projection on their $28 million investment, and are on track with first-year sales to meet this goal.
Astroturf groups like to wail and gnash their teeth about the failures of muni wireless networks when, in reality, the failures they cite are all networks that were owned by private companies including the wireless network in Longmont. But what about city-owned WiFi? Here’s one example, from Prestonburg, Ky.
Brent Graden, the city’s Director of Economic Development, states, “We made wireless the central part of an integrated package of activities to revitalize business in our downtown. Our wireless network, combined with 3 percent loans and development efforts for buildings that weren’t being used, made downtown friendly for businesses. Wireless created incentives for people to come downtown.
“Within three months of launching the network, 22 businesses moved in with 40–45 new jobs. This creates a cyclical effect with more people coming into downtown, which attracts more businesses. Tax revenue from here in the first year of the program went up $111,000, mostly through new business growth. This in turn allowed us to buy an aerial fire truck, which has kept property owners and government insurance rates from rising.”
Want to get the real deal on broadband networks run by municipal governments, check out these two reports. Not every municipal network has been a big winner, and a couple have struggled. But there are three or four dozen successful municipal, or public-driven public/private network, projects that provide unquestionable validation for communities such as Longmont.
Government-owned networks have a lot to recommend them. They also demand proper previous planning. But I believe Longmont will pull it off if they can just get the Empire out of the way (segue to triumphant Jedi-in-the-house music).
Craig Settles helps organizations use broadband technologies to improve government and stakeholders' operating efficiency, as well as local economic development.
Edited by Michael Dinan