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Last week, the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center brought together some of the top experts in community broadband to get an overview of different models for building out local networks. Panelists compared and contrasted public, public/private, non profit and cooperative models.
Watch the video:
At the event national experts spoke to 138 attendees - 45 in the room and 93 watching remotely from a livestream - including city council and staff members, members of the governing body of the local public network, called UC2B, and interested residents. A group proposing to build out as a local cooperative was also present. The panel was facilitated by Brandon Bowersox, who chairs the UC2B governing body.
Joanne Hovis, President of CTC Technology and Energy, urged communities to talk through their priorities and how they intend to measure success. There is a trade off, she explained, between risk, reward, and control. "When you give up risk, you give up some control, but perhaps not all the reward," she said. "Financial metrics are not the drivers of these networks,” Hovis explained, implying that communities networks are not primarily money makers for cities. Tthere are other metrics to consider, she explained. They can enable economic development, education, and health. And there are costs to not building out. "There is a broader risk of not having fiber to the premises … as a nation, we are taking that large risk."
Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance, showed a map of municipal networks and described a number of success stories in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina. But some have failed, he explained, usually because they were attacked by the private sector which dropped prices lower than the cost of service or mounted law suits. 2000 cities in the US run their own electric utilities - they are well positioned to also run public broadband. They can be funded from revenue bonds, taxpayer dollars, or utility assets in cities that already provide utilities such as power or water to residents.
Wally Bowen, founder of the Mountain Area Information Network, shared maps of his home state of North Carolina, which has a patchwork networks run by private companies, cooperatives, and non profit organizations. He urged listeners to challenge the exclusion of non profit networks from the Connect America Fund, a fund offering billions of dollars to connect rural and underserved areas to broadband.
Greta Byrum is a Senior Analyst with the Open Technology Institute (OTI) which has been working with Philadelphia and Detroit – cities which received federal funds for public computer centers and broadband adoption but not high speed fiber. OTI has worked with these communities on organic, decentralized models for growing networks. She suggested communities like Urbana-Champaign who are building out fiber, carefully consider how to engage communities in the process to support use of the network. "'Build it and they will come' doesn't work. You can't just build, you have to work on digital literacy." She suggested starting with building wireless networks, which is less expensive and slower than fiber, and then later building fiber.
Urbana-Champaign in Illinois is completing construction of a public system - called UC2B. By the end of the year, 250 anchor institutions, including Urbana IMC, plus about 10% of local homes will be connected with fast broadband which can be used to access the internet, share videos, make phone calls and more. With the help of $22.5 million in federal funds, UC2B is being built in neighborhoods who are the least connected to broadband. Now the community is grappling with how to build out the other 90% of the network so every resident, business, and organization has fast connectivity.
Champaign-Urbana recently submitted an application to Gigabit Squared where a private partner would build out and own the rest of the network while agreeing to strong public interest provisions These provisions include a guarantee of “full build out” where every part of the community would get fast broadband and “open access” where multiple businesses or organizations could offer services on the network. The company would also pay fees (like rent) to be able to put fiber optic cable under public streets. The cities expect to hear back soon about whether Gigabit Squared is interested in building in Champaign-Urbana.
UC2B also recently asked for proposals for other methods to connect the enture community to fast broadband. Four proposals from private firms and one from a local cooperative were submitted. Last Monday, the Urbana City Council heard a report from city staff on the feasibility of the city building out the network. View the video.