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Toward Gigabit Community Unity

Jason Meyers

President Obama's decision to deliver his message supporting municipal broadband yesterday from a municipal utility in Cedar Falls, Iowa was a purposeful stick in the eye of the communications industry establishment.

And while the incumbent telecom and cable providers certainly aren't going to be talked out of their consternation, maybe -- just maybe -- they should take a step back and examine what opportunities for their own businesses might exist in what's happening in cities and communities nationwide. They should seize this timely opportunity to become part of the Gigabit Cities movement.

At Light Reading, we use the "Gigabit Cities" label to encompass the entire ecosystem -- not just municipalities, commercial network operators, utility companies, technology innovators or application developers, but everyone involved in the decisions, strategies, investments, deployments, operations and successes of Gigabit Cities nationwide (and, increasingly, globally). While we recognize that there are complex legal and regulatory definitions about network ownership and service delivery, we also believe there is a city-by-city movement afoot that is larger than the regulatory squabble.

Broadband service providers are a critical part of this movement -- and I count Google Fiber Inc. among them, (along with AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), Cox Communications Inc. , CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL), Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC), Silver Star Communications , Paul Bunyan Communications and so many more telecom and cable entities. Those companies are as much a part of the Gigabit Cities ecosystem as EPB Fiber Optics of Chattanooga, Longmont Power & Communications in Colorado, Sebewaing Light and Water in Michigan and the dozens of other utilities and municipalities providing gigabit-speed connectivity in their individual communities.

For the latest on urban network innovation, visit Light Reading's dedicated Gigabit Cities content channel. And watch for forthcoming details on Light Reading's Gigabit Cities Live event, to be held in May 2015 in Atlanta.

It's true that by broadcasting his administration's salvo from a city served by a municipal gigabit network rather than a commercial gigabit network, Obama politicized and further polarized an already highly polarized issue. Proponents of Gigabit Cities are also guilty of glossing over the important and powerfully competitive role of service provider networks, as was evident this week at the Gigabit City Summit in Kansas City. But I think the commercial broadband providers are missing an opportunity in their refusal to take a more active role in the Gigabit Cities movement. (See Obama Rocks Broadband World Again and Momentum Mounting for Municipal Gigabit.)

How could they do that? By pursuing public/private partnerships with broadband-hungry municipalities, potentially. Many of those communities might not be high on service providers' lists of revenue targets, but clearly there is pent-up broadband demand. Perhaps there is a different service provider business model for those communities than the one they apply in larger markets.

The existence of a gigabit network in a community that is struggling economically (as so many communities are) is also increasingly tied to efforts to foster local entrepreneurship. It's too early to quantify this yet, but what's happening in places like Chattanooga certainly suggests positive results for these cities.

Maybe, in a partnership scenario, commercial service providers could positively leverage the energy and local connections of municipalities into promoting their own role in transforming communities into Gigabit Cities. If service providers have a hand in building and operating the network, perhaps that would help alter their public image and make them seem part of the community solution.

I wholly recognize that this is an extraordinarily complex regulatory and financial issue with many layers and viewpoints, and I welcome yours in the comments section below (including those that lambast my idealism, naïve optimism and unrealistic ideas). But these networks, regardless of who owns and operates them, have the capacity to transform small business, healthcare, clean energy, public safety, education, transportation, advanced manufacturing, collaboration, entertainment and more. As such, I believe the topic deserves to be explored by this industry from more than just political and regulatory angles.

— Jason Meyers, Senior Editor, Gigabit Cities/IoT, Light Reading

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Gabriel Brown
Gabriel Brown,
User Rank: Light Sabre
1/16/2015 | 4:09:50 AM
Re: All gigabit is local
The gigabit cities movement glosses over who will pay for it, and maintain it over time. City administrations (all around the world) seem to be very short of capital and revenue. This is not an ideal starting point.

One lesson from the muni WiFi bandwagon 10 years ago is that you need professional service providers with suffcient scale, and staying power, to make it work. If you rely on local tax payers and non-professional hobbyists, it starts off full of promise and then fizzles...
User Rank: Light Beer
1/15/2015 | 2:53:54 PM
All gigabit is local
Great insight about the gigabit city trend shaping the politics at the local level with city and municipal (and in some cases) regional governments. It reminds me that, like politics, all broadband is local. It's a local issue, and one that an informed civic leadership (like Chattanooga) should take seriously. An informed civic leadership, like an informed citizenry, will figure out fast what it can and cannot do. For many cities, building a broadband network is not similar to building a network of roads and highways. For a complicated project there are plenty of local and regional network experts (including operators) more than eager to work with them.

User Rank: Light Sabre
1/15/2015 | 2:09:39 PM
No matter what someone thinks about municipal broadband, I think having incumbent gatekeepers write state telecommunications law is a bad idea. These bills banning towns and cities from making these decisions for themselves are AWFUL.

I agree there's a lot of potential here for public/private partnerships, and many of these companies are throwing out the baby with the bathwater when they pass these bills (since many hinder what can be accomplished).
User Rank: Blogger
1/15/2015 | 12:38:01 PM
One clarifying note
This is not meant as a rebuttal of incumbent service providers' positions on state laws and regulatory policy. If anything, it's an overly idealistic view on how broadband network operators might leverage some of the community-level energy and momentum that's building and use it to their own potential benefit.
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