DIY public broadband guide gives power to the people

  • Many community-owned networks are battling to stay alive due to opposition from political actors and incumbents

  • A new guidebook aims to help communities build their own broadband infrastructure

  • The American Association for Public Broadband's Gigi Sohn dispelled misconceptions about building public networks, including the need to raise taxes

In news that's probably not sitting well with public broadband naysayers, communities now have a handy guidebook to build their own networks. On first glance, the idea of a guide might seem dull, but if you've been following the news around opposition facing public broadband, the new book is akin to putting more power in the hands of the people.

Written for the American Association for Public Broadband (AAPB) by Bill Coleman and published by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, the book outlines the necessary steps and decisions for establishing a public network, and gives resources from law firms to equipment vendors.

The guidebook walks communities through the process, from creating a community broadband vision to accessing and understanding the tools and data available (ie. surveys and maps), said Adrianne Furniss, executive director of the Benton Institute. Getting to know existing internet service providers, as well potential new providers and their business models, is key to success, she told Fierce Telecom.

Coleman, a consultant and noted broadband-for-all advocate, said he interviewed “community champions from about six communities and combined that with [his] own experience," in order the write the book.

Choose your own broadband adventure

Best practices from those community testimonies are highlighted in profiles within the guidebook. In some areas, services leave much to be desired, ranging from "barely satisfactory to very poor," noted Coleman, which could motivate leadership to remove what he called a "community development deficit."

Other communities may already have satisfactory broadband services, but could use network control and ownership to accomplish things like economic development, social equity, affordability and smart city applications.

There are multiple avenues toward implementing public broadband, and Coleman expects that each community does so “in their own unique way.” 

When a community has something to offer, for example, like access to underlying communications infrastructure or financing, it can negotiate for benefits such as ubiquity (connections to everyone in the community) or affordable service options that can drive subscription uptake in low-income households.  

“We’ve seen communities, particularly in rural areas, choose electric or telephone cooperatives as their internet service provider partners because there is more alignment and a focus on community, longer-term return on investment, and network sustainability,” Furniss said.

Communities can choose to take on the connectivity challenge entirely as a public enterprise, but another popular model is public-private partnerships, where communities can “share risk,” she added. In the case of one network in Colorado Springs, the municipality established a city-wide fiber network and chose an anchor tenant — Ting Internet.

In other cases, communities are choosing neither to build nor operate their networks, but what ties all these models together is that the community owns the infrastructure. The new guidebook walks communities through a "decision-making funnel," Furniss said, so they can determine which path will work for them.

Dispelling misconceptions

There are some myths surrounding community-owned broadband, according to AAPB Executive Director Gigi Sohn, one of which is that a municipality has to hike taxes to build a network. But there have been examples where that’s not the case.

In Colorado, municipally-owned Pulse was able to fund its network through revenue bonds which were backed by the Loveland electric utilities enterprise fund. A revenue bond is a type of municipal bond typically used to fund projects that are expected to generate revenue, like public utilities. Unlike general obligation bonds, which are backed by the taxing power of the issuing government, revenue bonds are supported by the income generated from the project they are financing.

Another misconception is that the cost of building a network is too steep, or even worse, the money spent could end in no returns. “They see the price tag in front of them. And that just scares them to death,” Sohn told Fierce. “But depending on the model, you can get that revenue back and then some.”

There are nearly 450 municipal broadband networks across the U.S., and the new guidebook is part of AAPB's strategy to double the number of public networks in the next five years. In January, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) released a tally of municipal broadband networks showing a “dramatic surge” in the number of communities building publicly-owned infrastructure. Since January 2021, at least 47 new municipal networks have come online, with dozens of other projects still in the works, including possibility of building 40 new municipal networks in California alone.

The community broadband battle is real

Some folks aren't exactly sold on the concept of public broadband. In the face of such skepticism, many community-owned networks have had to battle to stay alive.

In November, an organization called No Gov Internet ran a seven-figure statewide media campaign against a municipally-owned provider in Utah, UTOPIA, about the “dangers of a government-owned internet.”

No Gov Internet said in its campaign announcement that it was appealing to “everyone who believes that the private marketplace is more reliable, capable and dependable to manage a free, safe and secure internet than cities and government bureaucracy.”

Municipal broadband has also gotten political flack, including from U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who called for the NTIA to remove any encouragement of government-owned networks in the BEAD program’s notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) last year.

Indeed, one of the biggest challenges to community-owned networks, is “the incumbents and the obstacles they throw up, and the political pressure they put on,” Sohn said.

“They've actually been ramping it up of late.. we’re seeing attacks all over the country and they think they have unlimited money to attack not only new networks, but ones that have been in existence forever," said Sohn.

Nonetheless, she said the community-owned model will prevail where there is strong leadership in local governments, set on building their own broadband infrastructure like a “dog with a bone.”

“Leadership, first, is critical,” Sohn said, “and then community support is critical.”