Your Voice: Municipal broadband is feasible


Last week I watched the joint Farmington/Farmington Hills City Council study session that discussed the results of the Municipal Broadband Taskforce feasibility study to assess “the viability of building a new broadband network.” In laymen’s terms, this means rather than waiting for local internet providers to build out a long-term durable network infrastructure, can our community jumpstart this effort?

The feasibility study’s authors produced a detailed 186-page report, which provided the basis for the meeting’s presentation and discussion. As someone whose job is to advise IT organizations on how to deploy information technology and someone who has read many of these types of reports over my career, I was impressed by the depth and quality of analysis (and, yes, I read the entire report). The approach for estimating the required capital investment in community cabling and the research assessing approaches for building a sustainable business model was high quality work. I learned a lot from this report and discussion. Well done, task force!

The resulting discussion among councilmembers was also reassuring because they clearly had ideas and expertise for taking the next steps. However, we should be clear (a point made in the meeting) that this is only a feasibility study, not a business plan ready for execution.

The bottom-line results of this study are:

  • Our community needs reinvestment in our network infrastructure.
  • Building out network infrastructure separately from the current internet providers is feasible.
  • More work is needed to create a business plan.

The pandemic made clear that our internet connectivity is now critical infrastructure and affects the quality of our communities’ businesses, educational opportunities, healthcare services and social interactions. Try to imagine going through this pandemic ten or twenty years ago. Unfortunately, some of our neighbors do not have to imagine because their lack of connectivity is a daily struggle. This initiative also allows us to shape a community service to provide low-income households new opportunities to succeed.

Our current network infrastructure was built in a different age and for different purposes. Back then, WiFi was SciFi and cell phones were not at all smart. We’ve move from “You’ve got mail!” to “We’ve got an app for that!” Although the pace of technology quickens, this type of investment increases in value for a long time. Fiber network cables last for many dozens of years. Long-term maintenance generally consists of upgrades to switching equipment. Furthermore, continued fiberoptic innovations will increase the capacity of the light passing through these cables. We have a mature technology that will last a lifetime and whose capacity can easily grow. This situation is ripe for community investment.

The pandemic also shows that we need to pay more attention to our in-home technology environments. Quality of WiFi signal is critical as are room layouts and configurations to accommodate families working and attending school from home. In my opinion, any plan that serves community internet needs must address both network infrastructure and in-home experience. By future-proofing our network infrastructure we can focus on the quality of the in-home experience.

The strongest arguments against our community doing this is to allow the free market to make this investment. In other words, if companies haven’t already stepped in then there is clearly no business case. This is a fair point and must be addressed in any subsequent detailed plan. We should not create a community-driven service that requires subsidies.

However, I would point out that current service providers have chosen to keep our network infrastructure as status quo. This is also the work of the free market. In addition, other critical infrastructure, such as electricity, water and natural gas has always been guided by the communities they serve.

Similar governance approaches could be used, but the nature of network infrastructure is unlike these utilities. Networks consume almost no tangible resources. In other words, we aren’t burning any fuel (like natural gas) to download a school assignment or Zoom with the boss. Rather, these are fixed investments whose resources are spread over a large community whether you use them or not.

I support our local city councils investigating and developing this idea further. Their credibility and earnest desire to do the right thing for our community is shown in the quality of the report produced and the quality of discussions now taking place.

Larry Cannell is a 30+ year resident of Farmington Hills. He has been working full-time from home since 2008 as a research director for Gartner, advising companies on collaboration technologies, such as Microsoft Office 365. In addition to his Gartner research, Larry is often quoted in leading IT publications such as Computerworld and TechTarget as well as The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg TV. Opinions expressed here are solely his own and do not represent those of Gartner.

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