The Next Generation Network Connectivity Handbook: Top Ten Overall Lessons

On July 21, 2015, Gig. U and the Benton Foundation published a comprehensive guide for communities who want better broadband for their residents and businesses. The Next Generation Connectivity Handbook: a Guide for Community Leaders Seeking Affordable Abundant Bandwidth is an indispensable tool in lowering the initial, daunting information barrier for cities just beginning to navigate critical Internet infrastructure issues. Today, we share the Handbook’s Top Ten Overall Lessons drawing on the experiences of 25 Gig.U communities who have worked on this issue for many years.

Throughout this Handbook, we have identified the most important considerations for cities seeking to accelerate the deployment of next generation networks in their communities. This section distills these even further to a “Top Ten” list that provides lessons for all communities—regardless of size, density or demographics—pursuing improved bandwidth for their businesses and residents.

Lesson 1: Organizing community resources and stakeholders is essential for making gigabit projects economically viable.

While different cities have different demographics, construction costs and other variable factors that affect the feasibility of a gigabit capable network, communities that have moved forward share one driving force: a commitment to improving broadband availability. Any community has the ability to organize its resources and regulatory processes to lower capital expenditures, operating expenditures and risk, and raise revenues – the key to making gigabit projects economically viable. Also, any community with a vibrant tech or start-up community can leverage that energy to produce project support. These stakeholders are first adopters and already understand the “why” of gigabit speeds.

Lesson 2: Start with a clear understanding of how your city’s rules and assets affect deployment costs.

The organizing effort starts with a detailed understanding of how communities’ policies and assets affect the economics of network deployments. Gig.U, the Fiber to the Home Council and others have developed tools for this exercise and public documents from the Google Fiber project also provide a roadmap for how cities should think about the impact of their rules and assets on network economics.

Lesson 3: Because it takes a long time to plan and deploy a network – and it always takes longer than you think – the right time to start thinking about how to improve the economics is today.

Every day, cities make decisions that can affect the cost of deployment. Every time a street is dug up, every time an area is developed or redeveloped, there is an opportunity to lower the cost of future deployment. Every time such actions occur without an eye toward lowering the cost of next generation broadband facilities, the future cost of such a network increases.

Lesson 4: Incumbents only respond to a potential change in the status quo. Inaction by a city leads to inertia in the market.

In every community we have worked with, action by the city has always led to a response by incumbent providers. Generally, that response is in the nature of an incremental bandwidth increase or some other kind of improvement designed to forestall a broader, community-led broadband upgrade. This is not to criticize the incumbents; it is simply to suggest that when it comes to cities and their broadband networks, the old saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” turns out to be true. For example, without its RFP, it is doubtful that Los Angeles would have received a proposal by Time Warner Cable to accelerate its upgrade throughout the city. Similarly, Time Warner Cable’s upgrade in North Carolina only occurred after the community-led efforts in that state.

Lesson 5: Cities who act will have to choose between the quick, short-term win and the harder, longer-term win.

When cities become “the squeaky wheel,” they often have an opportunity to obtain some quick concessions from incumbents in exchange for stopping a process that opens the door to new providers. There is no general rule for responding. Some cities may best be served by taking what is in front of them, while others have the potential for far greater gains. What is certain is that cities should be prepared to analyze the short-term and long-term risks and opportunities so as not to be pressured into making a decision based solely on a desire for a “quick win.” Rather, they should be looking toward the “art of the possible” by maximizing the long-term prospects for broadband abundance.

Lesson 6: While success depends upon broad support, it also depends on nimble decision-making.

One reason Google chose Kansas City as its initial project site was that the existing unified government structure gave Google confidence it would receive decisive responses on a variety of issues as the project proceeded. Other projects have not gone as smoothly because decision-making was diffuse across a number of constituencies. For a project to be successful, there must be a broad coalition of interests supporting it. At the same time, that coalition must have confidence that local leadership will act quickly on behalf of all. Otherwise, there will be delays that ultimately raise costs and could injure the project’s long-term prospects. Further, it is often difficult, within the existing local government structure, to find a high-level executive to “own” the project and assure its completion. Empowering such a person, and making sure the project is not an orphan, has been critical to the success of projects to date.

Lesson 7: There is no one-size-fits-all solution. There are multiple solutions to multiple community needs with multiple trade-offs. But all efforts improve the situation relative to the status quo.

As evidenced by the multiple ways in which Gig.U communities have approached the opportunities, there are many different ways to accelerate the deployment of a next generation network. Each has advantages and disadvantages. What is common to all, however, is that the cost to the community of such efforts is negligible and the benefits are significant. There is no cost to asking questions. Indeed, simply asking the right questions can cause incumbent providers to become more interested in how the city is thinking and more responsive to future needs. Competition – even the threat of competition – tends to improve the performance and the offerings of incumbents.

Lesson 8: Experiments don’t always work the first time. That’s why they are called experiments. Make sure the community leadership understands this and that there is a path for “lessons learned” to improve performance in successive iterations.

Pioneers don’t have the advantage of a clear and certain map. In each of the efforts to date, mistakes were made. The key is not to let the mistake determine the fate of the project, but rather to figure out how to correct the error and continue to move forward. A good example of the right way to approach the long-term objective is the work of the Seattle Citizens Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board. As a letter from the organization notes, the disappointment in the inability of Gigabit Squared to deliver on its promises did not diminish the centrality of world-class broadband to the economic future of the city, nor the citizens’ interest in accelerating the deployment of a gigabit network. Indeed, as the Board stated, “Though we are disappointed in light of recent news that the Gigabit Squared initiative with Seattle no longer seems viable, the Citizens Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board (CTTAB) wants to be clear in reaffirming our earlier position on broadband for the City… the Board (CTTAB) urges the Mayor and the Council to move forward without further delay to bring a Fiber-to-the-Premise network to Seattle… State-of-the-art Internet access is essential to Seattle’s ability to compete and lead in the 21st Century global economy.” The City continues to explore other options, with a recent study that provides a thorough review of the costs of deploying a next generation network.

Lesson 9: Scale matters.

As these projects are not cookie-cutters, there are significant start-up costs. In that light, scale is an advantage. The larger the ultimate addressable market, the more a provider is willing to risk those start-up costs. It is unlikely, for example, the eight respondents to the NCNGN project would have been willing to respond to six different RFPs. While the regional approach appears to be working there, it is important to remember the prior rule that quick decision-making also matters. So leaders of multi-community efforts must make sure the desire for scale does not result in complicated and lengthy decision-making.

Lesson 10: Above all, local leadership is the single most important ingredient for success. If there are local leaders who put this at the top of their agenda, it can happen. If not, it won’t.

Gig.U is proud of how it created a national platform for communities to help each other chart a path whereby every member community benefits from the efforts of others. But the single most critical variable for success is not in Gig.U or any national organization. It has been, and always will be, local leadership. In every community where an effort has moved forward, there has been strong local political, business and civic leadership that has made it a priority.

By Blair Levin.