A Policy Agenda for Broadband Stakeholders | July 2015
For a printable version of this policy agenda, click here.
In the 21st century, broadband Internet access has emerged as more than just an information superhighway—it has become critical infrastructure to connect citizens, businesses, and communities alike to new opportunities. Yet for too many communities, the promise of fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access remains unrealized. That is why over 100 cities and towns have formed Next Century Cities, a nonpartisan, city-to-city collaborative. Next Century Cities (NCC) is dedicated to elevating the voices of communities in the broadband policy discussion and sharing resources and knowledge among members.
Our members know that universal, high-speed Internet access is necessary infrastructure for their communities. But communities face real hurdles in achieving universal, high speed access, and once that is achieved, taking full advantage of the promises of broadband Internet can be a daunting task. From bringing fiber connections to homes and business, to building ‘middle mile’ networks that serve as the backbone of the Internet, to bridging the ‘digital divide’ and ensuring access for advantaged and disadvantaged communities alike, communities are often left with no map to guide their way and no real sense of how they can leverage all levels of government and civil society to support their efforts. This Policy Agenda offers policies that will move communities in the direction of fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access available to all.
Expanding high quality Internet access in a community, whether large or small, can yield a multitude of benefits for residents—from improved health services, to new opportunities for small businesses, to higher property values, to a stronger local economy. High-quality Internet access is not only necessary infrastructure for the 21st century, but the collaborative process of expanding that access itself has civic benefits. Whether communities choose to work with independent service providers or build and/or operate their own network, government and civil society can play a critical role in assisting the larger push for broadband access. Creating a diverse group of stakeholders to guide the development of broadband infrastructure ensures an end result that serves all citizens of a town or city.
The development of fast, affordable, and reliable broadband Internet for communities often requires a wide range of stakeholders contributing in a variety of ways, from providing a broadband-friendly regulatory climate, to demonstrating the value of networks, to empowering key voices. NCC’s Policy Agenda identifies the roles each ally can play to develop broadband at each level of government, offers guidance on how policymakers and community members can fulfill these roles with examples of what’s working, and proposes concrete actions government and civil society can take to lay the groundwork for a broadband-ready future.
Key stakeholder groups addressed in the NCC Policy Agenda include:
Local governments occupy a critical role in the success of broadband projects and are ideally equipped to identify and address a community’s specific Internet access needs. Local governments are better equipped than any other level of government to decide if the community is well served and the needs of residents, businesses, and anchor institutions are being met.
They are also best poised to understand the challenges and assets present in the community that will impact the success of any project. Some policies for effective local government engagement include:
Local policies can have a direct impact on how many Internet providers can operate in a community. For instance, requiring every provider to bury fiber to connect their subscribers reduces the number of service providers able to compete. That is why many communities have created “dig once” policies to ensure conduit and fiber are available for lease on reasonable terms. A number of local governments have revised their permitting requirements to lessen the burden on ISPs. However, simply taking these actions has little impact without a committed partner willing to invest. Areas that municipalities can address include:
This is a collection of approaches that collectively aim to get conduit, fiber, and other assets, placed at a very low cost as part of other projects. For instance, installing conduit underground as part of a sewer main replacement—or requiring that a new housing development include multi-channel conduit when it is being built (at a tiny fraction of the cost it would take to add after the streets are paved). The conduit and fiber may later be used by the local government or leased to other providers. Over a period of ten years or more, this policy could result in fiber throughout the majority of a community.
New providers may find it all but impossible to serve potential subscribers in existing multitenant residential and commercial buildings. Requiring buildings to have wiring or ducts that facilitate multiple providers can go a long way toward facilitating more investment in higher quality networks.
Local governments should make permitting as easy as possible for building these essential networks. By streamlining permit processes, local governments can not only reduce the cost of a potential deployment but also ensure a network owner will begin to collect revenue more rapidly, both of which make a community a much better prospect for investment (whether external or internal). Note that in many cases, local governments do not own the utility poles. Without owning the poles, there is little a local government can do to force a pole owner (often the incumbent telephone company) to “play nice” with a planned network.
Local governments play a critical role in existing infrastructure projects such as roads and electrical grids—and broadband networks are no exception. Several types of infrastructure investments can assist in providing high-speed broadband to all residents:
Though many local governments and anchor institutions like schools lease services from an independent provider, many hundreds of local governments have decided to own and/ or operate their own network serving only public facilities. In other cases, school districts have begun to build their own fiber network or lease dark fiber to operate their own internal network. They have found that self-provisioning can ensure higher reliability, greater capacity, and more flexibility, all at a lower total cost than other solutions. This approach results in greater efficiency and can create the expertise needed to later begin offering services to businesses and/or residents if necessary.
One of the most basic things a local government can do is to create assets that will lower the cost of deploying a network. This can be part of the dig once policies discussed above or include extra assets created as part of building an institutional network. Such assets may include conduit, fiber optic cables, and space on towers or other facilities allowing wireless attachments. This infrastructure is often called passive because the city simply has to create physical things but generally does not have to actively operate them; independent service providers will lease these spaces or facilities to offer their own services.
Some of the best places in the United States to get Internet access are communities where local governments directly provide the service. In most of these approaches, the local government offers the triple play of telephone, Internet access, and cable television in competition with national cable and telephone companies. Offering the three services has been seen as the safest way to ensure the private investors that financed each project would be repaid because these communities have often chosen not to use taxpayer dollars to finance the network. Most of these communities have built their network via an already-existing municipal electrical company. However, communities without public power are recently getting more involved in this approach.
Some local governments have chosen to expand services with a partnership, where the risks and rewards are shared in some way between the local government and a trusted partner. In this case, the local government often focuses on core infrastructure or funding while relying on its partner to provide the services, which tend to evolve more rapidly and require more marketing savvy. This is an area with a lot of active interest and new models but only a few long-standing examples.
Communities can help their peers across the country by creating channels to share best practices and lessons learned from their own broadband projects. This knowledge sharing can occur through institutionalized and informal forums alike. Many local governments have made it a priority to share their knowledge, whether by presenting at conferences, joining Next Century Cities, doing interviews on Gigabit Nation or the Community Broadband Bits podcast, or even simply writing articles to explain what they did and why. These lessons are very important to inform other local governments because local governments have more challenges and different assets than the typical small ISP building a fiber network. If local governments do not share their experiences, others will have to reinvent the wheel.
Data about broadband networks and their impacts can provide a powerful tool for advocates in other communities seeking similar infrastructure. Local governments are ideally positioned to gather important information that can be used to demonstrate the positive impacts of ubiquitous broadband access. Whereas private sector companies are most focused on maximizing revenue, local governments should be focused on ensuring businesses and residents can maximize the benefits of connectivity.
State governments can play a critical role in facilitating and empowering community-led broadband initiatives. Effective leadership at the state level can:
Through funding initiatives, state governments can play a critical role in assisting community- led efforts. For instance, state governments can create grant and/or loan approaches to encourage projects. Minnesota spent $20 million on grants for 19 projects to expand Internet access in the most rural areas. New York has established a $500 million fund for matching grants to build high capacity networks. States may also establish an effort to aid local governments in accessing capital markets by combining multiple offerings into one and offering a backstop to ensure a low interest rate. States should be aware that a requirement for a network to serve only underserved or unserved populations makes long term financial sustainability questionable. Allowing networks serving largely unserved or underserved areas to overlap some areas with existing service may be preferable.
State governments can bring together stakeholders and communities from across the state to discuss the importance of broadband and share best practices to facilitate further network development. These are key opportunities to shine a light on successful examples that others may not be aware of and can help attract press attention on those that are leading by example. States must be careful not to be captured by incumbent interests that may want to restrict the types of approaches available.
State policies may enable or disable different approaches. For instance, approximately 20 states have limited local government capacity to invest in one or more approaches or partnerships. States should remove any barriers to local choice—communities will have to take responsibility for the consequences of any action or inaction. Some have justified the state preempting local authority as a measure to protect taxpayers. To date, we are unaware of a single instance where a state had to deal with any debt created by a community network. For states where authority is unclear, the state should make it clear that local governments have the authority to build or partner for new networks.
Task forces or committees focused on Internet access have been created in many states but have not often resulted in substantive new investment or changes to the status quo. States that have task forces should consider increasing representation from local businesses, residents, and local governments to ensure incumbent voices do not dominate the agenda. Particularly in rural areas, the voices of cooperatives and other locally rooted entities should be elevated rather than those of service providers that are not locally based.
Ensuring that communities have robust backhaul to connect to the rest of the Internet is important for financially-viable business plans for next-generation networks. Many states have regions where one or a small number of ISPs dominate the backhaul market. Building middle mile connections, most notably open access approaches that ensure multiple providers can use the infrastructure, will allow ISPs (particularly small private and community networks) to offer higher capacity connections at reasonable prices. And when built with modern technology, this approach may allow ISPs to offer their services anywhere the middle mile can connect them to open last mile networks. States already have internal needs that reach across the states but most lease lines from an incumbent provider like the telephone company. Replacing leased lines with state-owned fiber (the need for which will only increase) and adding extra capacity to lease to others may even be less expensive than continuing to lease lines from incumbent providers. Adding new fiber will result in more resiliency because a single fiber cut will not strand an area served by multiple options. Some of this investment may also be accomplished with a statewide “dig once” approach over time.
Elected officials, from the Governor to State Legislators can use their positions to call for local choice and block any actions by incumbents to use their power to restrict competition in the telecommunications market. Speaking out in favor of smart local approaches will result in more attention and media coverage, which will inspire other communities to work toward better Internet access.
Even the federal government has a role to play in ensuring the success of local broadband projects. The federal government was essential in ensuring all Americans were connected to the electrical grid, which it accomplished by encouraging investments by municipalities, cooperatives, and the private sector. This lesson is directly applicable to efforts to connect everyone with high quality Internet access. The federal government can:
The federal government has the authority to prevent market consolidation and mergers that are not in the public interest. In recent years, the Department of Justice and Federal Communications Commission have stopped mergers between AT&T/T-Mobile and Comcast/ Time Warner Cable. Both would have allowed firms that already have significant market power to substantially increase it, which would harm competition and economic outcomes throughout society. However, even as presently constituted, the large cable companies have the power to engage in predatory pricing to thwart competition (as well as engage in a variety of other anti-competitive tactics). The federal government should take a stronger role in limiting the power of the largest firms to ensure small firms are able to enter the market and compete.
In some cases, the federal government can act as a bulwark against state barriers regarding broadband infrastructure projects. By exercising preemptive powers, federal policymakers can remove barriers to broadband deployment, as well as break down bureaucratic silos. For instance, one agency may refuse to allow grants for one kind of infrastructure to be used for multiple purposes, meaning that conduit for traffic signaling may not be used to improve Internet access for businesses or anchor institutions. Though these rules may make sense narrowly in the silo, they raise the cost of investment in needed infrastructure when viewed more holistically. The executive branch should review such rules to lower the cost of infrastructure investment and remove any uncertainty in how valuable assets may be used.
Collecting higher-quality data at the national level can help inform decisions made in communities across the country, providing a wealth of information about approaches and tools to meet unique needs. Current data collection is insufficient, leading to numerous examples of people buying homes after being promised they have broadband Internet access, only to find out they did not. In collecting this data, agencies should develop reasonable processes for small ISPs, recognizing that they are often already more responsive at the local level than the largest ISPs (which have more capacity to comply with data disclosure requirements though are also more reluctant to share their data publicly). Federal agencies can assist this goal by collecting accurate data with regard to
- Service availability (actual connection rates, not just advertised)
- Cost over time
- Low-income digital inclusion programs
Funding for broadband infrastructure is often difficult to find – despite its critical importance to a thriving future. The federal government can assist communities through grant and loan opportunities. Rural electrification depended on the federal government loaning funds to newly created rural cooperatives. The history of success of municipal and cooperative approaches in providing infrastructure to rural America suggests that these efforts should be prioritized for grant/loan funding. Grants and/or loans should cover for capital costs that accompany a financially sustainable plan without future federal subsidies. The federal government should ensure paperwork requirements are more suited to small, rural operations than large firms that retain many lawyers.
Much like the state bully pulpit, only bigger. National elected leaders are powerful actors in any policy debate. National officials can influence policymakers at the state and local level by taking a stand for local Internet choice and improved access while highlighting good examples that should be emulated.
Philanthropic partners can be critical advocates for successful broadband projects, offering communities a number of tools to facilitate the development of fast, affordable, and reliable Internet in a community. In many cases, philanthropies have begun to engage productively in developing broadband networks, with room to further expand these efforts. Some of these activities include:
Philanthropic support has been crucial in helping to establish key advocacy groups for broadband. With funding from large foundations, organizations such as Next Century Cities are able to develop an effective platform for engaging key stakeholders and decision-makers in the larger broadband policy debate.
Knowledge production and dissemination helps bolster community campaigns for broadband Internet, providing both a sense of current gaps and suggesting possible solutions and benefits. Funding from philanthropic organizations can support high-quality research.
Communities and stakeholder groups often learn best when they share experiences with one another. Mutual learning forums, supported by philanthropies and foundations, can be an effective tool for advancing access to fast, affordable, and reliable broadband Internet.
Other philanthropy-supported groups work in the community at large to ensure that all members of a given town or city can reap the benefits of broadband Internet.
Other avenues for philanthropic engagement remain largely untapped, though they offer significant benefits to broadband deployment projects. Some of these new programs include:
By collaborating among partner and peer organizations, philanthropic funders can amplify the impact of individual investments and develop a shared broadband strategy.
While smaller than major philanthropies, community foundations possess valuable local knowledge that can effectively direct resources to important players in local broadband Internet projects.
Philanthropies can draw upon significant funds to assist in broadband projects. Supporting broadband can include large-scale program-related investments (PRIs) and instruments such as social impact bonds to support capital costs. Some of the challenges with connecting low-income populations are one-time capital expenditures that may be smart investments if a local service provider is willing to partner and ensure services are then available. Smaller-scale investments include matching funding to support feasibility studies. When assisting in feasibility studies, care should be taken not to establish a pipeline of the same consultants/vendors/etc for every community in the program. Communities have a variety of needs that may be better suited to some consultants and vendors than others.
Successful broadband projects need engagement from all members of the community to maximize the social benefits of the network. This includes involvement from the private sector, key pillars of civil society, and individual citizens. Some tools for effective community engagement might include:
Organizations such as libraries, schools, and communities of faith often play a critical role in community projects. Identifying and engaging respected leaders of these anchor institutions can help solidify social and political support for broadband projects. These institutions are already hubs of information for many in the community and may already be serving a substantial portion of the people that lack access at home or are in need of digital literacy training.
High-quality Internet access creates a tremendous variety of indirect benefits for the community including enhanced educational opportunities, avenues for civic growth and participation, improved healthcare outcomes, and even higher property values relative to areas without high-quality Internet access. However, these benefits are accrued generally by the community rather than specifically by the network owner, not unlike the benefits from roads. Roads themselves have tremendous maintenance costs but they enable commerce and travel, which is why building and maintaining streets is an important function of government. The many indirect benefits from improved Internet access are not immediately apparent without an effort to engage and educate the community.
Citizen testimonials about broadband offer a useful tool for advocates. By putting a human face to these technological issues, citizen-centered media campaigns can help to garner further community support.
Successful broadband efforts require input from all segments of the community. Advocates should seek to engage less-advantaged communities, while recognizing existing gaps in access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet.
Conversation among residents of a community can help to galvanize support for broadband infrastructure and serve to educate community members about the importance and potential of high-speed Internet. Community members are encouraged to talk to their friends and neighbors about the need for fast, affordable, and reliable Internet.