The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) recently released “Municipal Broadband: Demystifying Wireless and Fiber-Optic Options” that should be on the bedside table of decision-makers and community activists in any locale that hopes to control its own communications future.
The author is writing against the backdrop of St. Paul, Minnesota having recently pondered and decided to pursue building a fiber-optic network. The study makes the general case that proved a convincing argument in that twin city. It is no accident that such a useful general study grew out of the specific needs of a real community.
In my judgment Christopher Mitchell gets it exactly right: the big take-away is that communities can, and should, control their own communications destiny; no one else will do it for you:
Private network owners simply have different motivations from public network owners. Private companies are legally required to maximize profit for their shareholders. Public entities have a different mission; they are focused on maximizing social and economic benefit to the community. This distinction seems to have been lost in much of the discussion around municipal broadband systems.
That’s as simple and direct a statement of the obvious as any long-term advocate of public ownership could hope for.
That, happily, is not the only thing Mitchell is right about:
As St. Paul found, fiber-optic wires form the communications foundation of the future. Fiber networks last for the long term while offering un-matched speeds and capacity.
Fiber networks should not be considered an alternative to wireless networks. As noted previously, each solves different problems. Fiber networks can actually lower the cost of building a wireless network. Once the fiber network is completed, wireless nodes can be easily connected, offering considerably faster speeds than those without ubiquitous wired backhaul.
Wrapping it all up:
Fortunately, we already know the solution: wireless solves the mobility problem; fiber solves the speed and capacity problems; and public ownership offers a network built to benefit the community.
Those are the crucial points upon which an intelligent, well thought-out report is built. Having got the basics right Mitchell also demonstrates the ability to write well–explaining the critical differences between the technologies as well as he does the basic points of ownership and function. If you want to really understand the differences between wired and wireless architectures, and between cable, DSL, and Fiber delivery systems in terms that make it clear what those differences mean for the communities that use them, this is an almost uniquely useful text.
This well-done report should advance thinking in the area by making it nigh on impossible to ignore the basic case for public ownership—that only public ownership will lead to the public’s interest being consistently served. It should, as well, clarify the proper role of fiber and wireless in building an advanced infrastructure for your community. As has been argued here repeatedly, fiber and wireless are both necessary but a robust fiber network is the foundation for a truly useful wireless network.
Small print; two caveats:
First: The question of the possible monopoly nature of wireline networks is not dealt with. Most discussion, and this one, implicitly assume that competition between different wireline networks can be stable in the long run and so the issue of WHO owns the network is one that is not, perhaps, pressing. –If the local provider proves unreliable or abusive it is assumed that we could provide competition later. I am not at all confident of that assumption, strongly suspect that wireline, and especially wireline fiber, is a natural monopoly and am fearful that there is but a small window for communities to gain control of their own future and avoid being subject to a monopoly run from a distant metropole with no real regard for local communities. Sounding the tocsin now is, I fear, necessary.
Secondly: I, for one, would like to see more discussion of the role of open and closed networks. ILSR comes down pretty simply on the side of open networks–while noting that its favorite example, the one of Burlington, Vt, is ambigous on this issue. Burlington endorses an open network theoretically but sells its own products at retail and has yet to actually have other firms selling retail service over its fiber. (Other than, of course, pure IP plays like Vonage telephony, which can ride any network.) This issue has been chewed over pretty thoroughly on this site and we’ve come to a pretty nuanced view—one which recognizes the value of real competition but doubts that public networks can survive if forced to compete at a structural disadvantage with private, vertically integrated incumbents. Examples of clearly successful municipal communications networks competing against established incumbents are easy to come by. Give people fast, low latency public fiber at a cheap price and we’ll all abandon the retail, broadcast, POTS telephone provider fairly quickly–that is what’s seen as the inevitable “IP migration.” Voice service, is already moving in that direction quickly. Video will follow in any community as soon as there is a provider that will offer enough speed cheaply to move in that direction. But that is not in the interests of the established incumbents. And, as Mitchell correctly points out, only publicly owned enterprises would find it in the interests of their owners (the public) to allow or even encourage this migration. A fast, public fiber network like Lafayette’s is the only visible realistic alternative short of a sea change at the Federal level.
But my quibbles are minor—asking any one study to address so many topics is surely unreasonable. Especially when what is before us is so astonishingly well done.
PS…an theIND blog post notes this is as a study which praises Lafayette and the choices we’ve made. True, we get two nicely favorable mentions. But they are only mentions. Wait until we’re up and running.