Speeding up broadband

How can cities and other levels of government create more favourable conditions to accelerate investment in digital infrastructure? Subtle changes in policies and processes can go a long way.

I have written before that cities don’t need to become “smart cities” overnight. They should try to get a little smarter every day.

Over the past 20 years, we have sometimes seen different levels of governments enact regulations and processes that seem to discourage or inhibit investment in fibre or use junk science to delay or prevent wireless service providers from improving coverage or adding capacity.

These kinds of behaviours seem inconsistent with a shared objective to build the networks that drive an electronically fueled economy. All levels of government should be looking for ways to encourage more investment, reducing the cost of deploying facilities, improving service quality, fuel increased competition and ultimately lead to lower consumer prices.

A couple of recent unrelated articles caught my eye with thoughts that might contribute to a better climate for private sector investment in advanced digital infrastructure.

In a blog post, Verizon’s policy group describes today’s pole attachment process to deploy new networks as very slow and inefficient when it comes to attaching new small cells and fiber. So Verizon is asking the FCC to adopt a rule for what it calls “One-Touch Make-Ready“, to improve the processes by which telecommunications providers attach new equipment to poles. With 5G networks based on even smaller cells, towers will be located even closer to the end users. As such, it is becoming increasingly more important to improve these processes.

Under the current system, a new attacher must contact a pole owner to get permission to attach, wait for a survey, and then, wait some more as each existing attacher moves or adjusts their attachments – a process called “make-ready” (literally, making-the-pole-ready for the new attachment). Right now, this often proceeds sequentially, with multiple reviews and truck rolls for each of the providers already attached to the pole. It can take six months to a year – and piles of paperwork – to get a new attachment approved and placed on a pole.

Under the new proposal – called One-Touch Make-Ready – we suggest that new attachers should have the option of using pre-approved, licensed, and insured contractors to coordinate with all of the providers already attached to the pole and to do all the work to add a new attachment at one time.

Are broadband deployments being delayed by bureaucratic processes associated with accessing poles and towers owned by municipal and provincial power companies? Can these public agencies and companies help accelerate enhancements to broadband by improving access to their vertical assets?

Can we extend this to other public assets that can be used for wireless and wireline broadband deployment, such as municipal rights of way, water towers, easements, conduit in new road construction? All of these are mundane civic assets that can help stimulate network development to make the city a little smarter.

The other article I saw was an opinion piece in the Detroit News, advocating for Michigan to pass a bill that would “prevent local governments in the state from using public funds to pay for the cost of providing internet service.”

States have good reason to be concerned about municipal broadband projects. A recent study showed the financial performance of government-run broadband utilities is very poor, with only two of 20 municipal broadband projects for which transparent financial information was available expected to recover their costs within 40 years.

The University of Pennsylvania study cited in the article concludes “that municipal leaders should carefully consider all of the relevant costs and risks before moving forward with a municipal fiber program.”

In some communities, municipal offices, schools and hospitals could be anchor customers that encourage private sector investment in broadband. If a community establishes its own publicly funded network and migrates these institutions away from the competitive marketplace, the business case for private sector service providers can evaporate. Given the dismal financial performance of so many government-run broadband projects, communities should examine other models to encourage competitive private sector operators to make the investments to serve the entire population.

How can cities and other levels of government create more favourable conditions to accelerate development of digital infrastructure? Sometimes it doesn’t take millions of tax dollars; relatively simple changes to policies can significantly improve the climate for private sector investment.

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