Good Sense Spreads…Muni Broadband comes of age

Two stories came across my virtual desk yesterday that tell me that the municipal telecom movement is maturing. The time is ripe for Lafayette’s resolution to the disagreements within the camp of those who favor municipal and regional public networks.

The quiet, background, argument within that community has been between those that saw WiFi as the obvious way to provide ubiquitous, cheap internet connectivity and those who saw fiber as the only sensible long-term foundation for a municipal telecomm utility that would provide public capacity for internet, phone, cable, wireless and other services as they emerged.

I’ve argued that muni networks would need both fiber’s capacity and the mobility of wireless if they hoped to provide a valuable and competitive alternative to the increasingly interlocked camps of private incumbents. The opposition between Fiber and WiFi has always been false one but, for a host of reasons, the only practical way forward is to make the committment to building a FTTH network and only then build out a wireless network that would piggy-back on the crucial fiber infrastructure. That’s Lafayette’s plan.

With the recent shakeout of muni wifi market the hope that cities could get a private provider to build a network without any local risk or investment has been revealed as an impractical one. We’re now getting down to a more realistic appraisal of what cities will have to provide—and when it’s their own money on the line cities appear to be taking a more sophisticated view of what their citizens really need and the crucial role of fiber in providing it. When the “free,” “good enough” alternative evaporates people buckle down and actually think about their needs and how to make sure their investment pays for itself.

In Minnesota and Vermont
In the first of the two stories that indicate that muni telecomm is maturing, one a city has made the decision to push for a fiber network even though its neighbor is famous for one of the more successful WiFi builds. In the second, a successful fiber build has announced its intention to add wireless.

In Minnessota’s twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul Minneapolis has gotten a lot of publicity for moving forward, apparently on pretty favorable terms, with a WiFi network. It’s next door neighbor, however, isn’t buying in. St. Paul opted for a fiber network:

Minneapolis can keep its Wi-Fi network. St. Paul says Wi-Fi is too slow, and it wants something faster. Much, much, much faster.

On Wednesday, the City Council unanimously approved an advisory committee’s proposal to seek partners for a publicly owned fiber-optic cable network for high-speed Internet access…

St. Paul’s broadband system would be fixed in place, but the 20-member advisory committee said the city could add a Wi-Fi service later though a private provider. That would let the wireless system piggyback on the fiber-optic network, which it would need anyway to connect back to the Internet.

A sidebar succinctly makes the case:


St. Paul quickly rejected the idea of Wi-Fi, City Council Member Lee Helgen says. Some reasons:

Too slow. Typical Wi-Fi speeds are 1-3 megabits per second, but research indicates average users may need speeds of up to 25 megabits per second by 2012.

It’s flaky. Wi-Fi doesn’t penetrate far into buildings; leaves, rain or snow can interfere with its signal.

In Vermont Burlington’s FTTH system has taken the go-slow approach to success and is now planning its move into wireless.

“We are going to build a wireless network,” said Tim Nulty, BT director, in an interview. “But the best way to build wireless is to build fiber first. That way we already have backhaul [capability] and every telephone pole is a potential antenna site.”

Like many municipalities seeking to deploy their own networks, the challenges in Burlington, the largest city in Vermont with 39,000 residents, were daunting. It had to convince state and city politicians and the town’s voters that the network was a good idea, as well as fend off criticism from established telecom providers. And early financing problems nearly sunk the project.

After picking its way through complicated political and financial minefields, BT developed a city-owned network that will supply Burlington citizens with low-cost triple-play broadband and, when its debt is retired in 15 years, should provide the city with 20% of its general fund.

“BT will be able to pay down its debt very quickly,” said Christopher Mitchell, of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self Reliance. “On the cost side of the equation, Burlington once faced massively growing telecommunications expenditures. It now views the telecommunications sector as an important source of new revenues.”

“…We resisted pressure to do wireless at first,” he [Nulty] said, adding that he expects that BT will one day provide Burlington with a “wireless cloud.” Nulty is beginning to look at various wireless approaches including Wi-Fi, WiMax, mesh, EV-DO, cellular resale, and 700 MHz among others.

BT is reported to have started negotiations with other Vermont cities including Montpelier and Rutland as well as smaller neighboring communities interested in gaining access to the Burlington network.

Dealing realistically with the difficult facts of an endeavor is always a sign of emerging maturity. Muni broadband is coming of age.

1 thought on “Good Sense Spreads…Muni Broadband comes of age”

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