Community Anchor Institutions as Launching Pads for High-Performance Broadband Deployment

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, March 9, 2020

Digital Beat

Community Anchor Institutions as Launching Pads for  High-Performance Broadband Deployment

Jon Sallet

In the 2020s, public policy should recognize that bits are books, bits are blackboards, and bits are basic tools of medical practice. In other words, broadband networks that run to schools or libraries or health-care facilities are not built to carry only scholastic or literary or medical information.

Community anchor institutions can serve as a launching pad for community-based broadband access and, in places where broadband has already been deployed, more broadband competition. As Joanne Hovis explains:

By their nature, most government networks to anchor institutions will reach deep into neighborhoods that house schools, libraries, public health offices, and government facilities such as water towers and fire stations. Many localities then lease excess capacity to private sector providers to enable service provision and last-mile build-out in the neighborhoods. This trend is fast accelerating as hundreds of localities make available spare fiber-optic capacity to private carriers at rates designed to catalyze new private sector investment and opportunity.

Congress has already provided that past funding recipients of middle-mile networks, like the connections to community anchor institutions that reach into a community but do not reach to residences within a community, must operate on a non-exclusive basis.

Publicly funded middle-mile networks should be open to other broadband providers because “building ‘open middle-mile’ networks to anchor institutions could make it easier for other competitive providers to build out last-mile networks, not only to the anchor institutions, but also to the rest of the community, including residential users.”[i] The following examples demonstrate different ways that middle-mile connections can support deployment into residential neighborhoods.

  • Merit Network in Michigan has begun to partner with municipalities and community anchor institutions “to facilitate community-provided internet to local organizations and residents” by using its expertise to ensure that middle-mile connections are available for local community efforts.
  • In South Bend, Indiana, local leaders dissatisfied with the prices charged by the single local broadband provider formed Metronet, an alternative, open-access broadband provider. The nonprofit’s financing strategy was particularly novel. Seven of the city’s major anchor institutions, including the University of Notre Dame and the city’s three hospital systems, each contributed more than $2 million to fund the first stage of the network’s deployment in exchange for ten years of access to the network. The city expanded a pre-existing fiber network that ran its traffic monitoring system. Savings have been substantial: the St. Joseph County Public Library, which serves more than 125,000 patrons, cut its annual broadband spending by two-thirds—a demonstration of the power of competition. In addition, recognizing the needs of lower-income people, Metronet has made a point of bringing broadband connectivity to community centers and other anchor institutions where half or more of the surrounding population have incomes under $30,000.

But a challenge to this strategy comes from the administration of the E-Rate program. Broadband networks that link to schools and libraries are natural candidates for expansion into nearby neighborhoods. However, a shadow has been cast over such efforts by the legal question as to whether E-Rate participants can share their networks for other uses, even where E-Rate is not paying for the expansion of a network to reach residential customers. The current cost-allocation rules are not sufficiently clear to facilitate experimentation and legitimate support for further build-out, which leaves schools and libraries fearful of losing funding. For example, the General Accounting Office in July 2019 noted that cost-allocation issues had adversely impacted efforts by schools in California, Colorado, and Virginia to offer students remote wireless access; in California a school district bought separate internet access in order to avoid the cost-allocation process entirely. And application of the standard is uneven—some projects including municipal entities have been treated differently than others.

The use of wireless technologies may be able to expand the reach of community institutions into their communities. For example, when television spectrum was assigned in the 600 MHz band, the FCC designated frequencies to be left unused, called “white spaces” (TVWS), in order to protect TV broadcasts from interference. But it turns out that internet-access service can operate in these white spaces without interfering with the use of licensed TV spectrum next to it. A grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is supporting new efforts to create easy-to-use TV white space base stations for libraries that can send Wi-Fi signals into communities in Georgia, Maine, Nebraska, and Washington, reaching seniors, students who lack home broadband, and local merchants. Another IMLS grant is working to empower tribal libraries to “leverage TVWS to provide convenient Wi-Fi access for the community in new places never before served” such as parks, shelters, playgrounds, senior centers, and post offices. Such public Wi-Fi access can serve as a short-term mechanism of offering broadband services to low-income residents, although the goal should always remain High-Performance Broadband.

Consistent with the capacity requirements of community anchor institutions, federal spectrum policy should recognize the importance of community uses. Spectrum is a resource, like a national park, and public access to a national park is a well-established and bipartisan goal. The same policy should apply to use of spectrum, which should be made available for licensed and unlicensed use, for private deployment and the public interest.

Finally, communities may be able to share infrastructure in order to help bring better commercial services to unserved or underserved areas. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University led by former FCC Chief Technologist Jon Peha are exploring how local governments can provide “smart city” services, including ways to collect and use data to reduce rush-hour congestion on busy roads, improve police and firefighter response times, and warn residents if air quality could pose a health risk. By working with local governments in urban and rural communities, they have shown that much of the cost of these services comes from improving communications infrastructure.

They are investigating new ways for local government to share infrastructure with commercial operators to simultaneously reduce costs incurred by government and improve the commercial broadband services available to the public, especially in areas that need broadband improvements most. For example, after the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed a plan to improve roadway safety that required deploying broadband-connected roadside units that use wireless technology to communicate with cars, the Carnegie Mellon researchers found that if state and local governments shared infrastructure with cellular operators, it could reduce the cost of this plan by hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide.

Jonathan Sallet is a Benton Senior Fellow. He works to promote broadband access and deployment, to advance competition, including through antitrust, and to preserve and protect internet openness. He is the former-Federal Communications Commission General Counsel (2013-2016), and Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Litigation, Antitrust Division, US Department of Justice (2016-2017). ​

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[i] Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition. “Connecting Anchor Institutions: A Broadband Action Plan.” Evanston, IL: Benton Foundation, July 2016. and Specifically, see Promoting Competition for Community Anchor Institution Broadband Services by John Windhausen, Jr.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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