Municipal Networks: Good for Cities?

Posted by Sam Churchill on

In cities and towns across the U.S., a familiar story is replaying itself: Powerful companies are preventing local governments from providing an essential service to their citizens.

More than 100 years ago, it was electricity. Today, it is the public provision of communications services, says Susan Crawford in a Bloomberg opinion column.

The Georgia legislature is currently considering a bill that would effectively make it impossible for any city in the state to provide for high-speed Internet access networks — even in areas in which the private sector cannot or will not. Nebraska, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee already have similar laws in place. South Carolina is considering one, as is Florida.

Mayors across the U.S. are desperate to attract good jobs and provide residents with educational opportunities, access to affordable health care, and other benefits that depend on affordable, fast connectivity — something that people in other industrialized countries take for granted. But powerful incumbent providers such as AT&T Inc. and Time Warner Cable Inc. are hamstringing municipalities.

Today, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for community broadband initiatives, is tracking more than 60 municipal governments that have built or are building successful fiber networks.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, the city’s publicly owned electric company provides fast, affordable and reliable fiber Internet access. Some businesses based in Knoxville — 100 miles to the northeast — are adding jobs in Chattanooga, where connectivity can cost an eighth as much.

Meanwhile, less than 8 percent of Americans currently receive fiber service to their homes, compared with more than 50 percent of households in South Korea, and almost 40 percent in Japan.

The Georgia bill is chock-full of sand traps and areas of deep statutory fog from which no local public network is likely ever to emerge.

Right now, state legislatures — where the incumbents wield great power — are keeping towns and cities in the U.S. from making their own choices about their communications networks. Meanwhile, municipalities, cooperatives and small independent companies are practically the only entities building globally competitive networks these days. Both AT&T and Verizon have ceased the expansion of next-generation fiber installations across the U.S.

– Susan P. Crawford is a visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School. In 2009, she was a special assistant to President Barack Obama for science, technology and innovation policy.

I (mostly) agree with Susan Crawford. But broadband wireless might deliver up to 20 Mbps for one tenth the cost of fiber.

Telecommunications has been getting cheaper and faster over the last 100 years. Why shouldn’t municipalities be able to have their own dedicated spectrum? They already do for police and fire. Dedicated municipal spectrum in the AWS band and in the sub-700 MHz band might provide broadband for regional government, save money, and even generate revenue through municipal wireless services.

Municipal WiFi networks never made sense at $100K per square mile. They were just too damned expensive. Providing reliable, big-city coverage required thousands of antennas and routers. Most municipal wireless proposals failed or were never built.

But the sub 700 MHz band, the AWS band, and “white spaces” are fundamentally different. Those frequencies cover miles – not several hundred feet, and don’t require unreliable mesh networks. New chips can use a variety of backhaul technologies for mobile WiFi. Municipal Wireless might actually pencil out. Cheaper, faster, and better.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are already being spent by state, local and regional agencies on dedicated first responder networks. The jury is still out on those operations. The cost/effectiveness of building vrs leasing LTE-enabled broadband for first responders will probably take time to determine. They won’t be cheap.

Motorola Solutions will build, own, operate and maintain a dedicated LTE system — known as BayWEB in the San Franciso bay area. They will build and run it for 12 years, then turn over the network to the Bay Area Regional Interoperable Communications System (BayRICS) Authority. The $72 million project is jointly funded through a federal BTOP grant of $50.5 million and $22 million in private funding from Motorola Solutions.

Will San Francisco first responders be better off with this private LTE cellular network? Supporters say first responders would face capacity constraints during emergencies. But first responders CAN use Wireless Priority Service, which gives them priority access to all cellular networks.

Motorola will charge public-safety subscribers $38 per month, although the vendor can boost that in future years. The BayWeb Joint Powers Authority (PDF) is expected to collect another $5 to $8 per subscriber each month to cover its administrative costs, or around $45-$50/month. From February 10, 2012 to February 9, 2022 it will cost approximately $300,000 in one-time costs, $108,000 in annual recurring user subscription fees, and $80,000 in annual recurring site support costs (pdf).

But other operational costs will boost the overall cost from $157/mo per user to $200/mo per user, according to Chris Flatmoe, San Mateo County’s representative on the JPA board.

That is a steep cost for a private network, particularly as California government entities are struggling, reports

Perhaps the Georgia legislature shouldn’t be spending tens of millions of local taxpayer money on first responder networks. AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon might all provide wideband push-to-talk LTE networks for less cost (under $60/month) and deliver better coverage, too.

Using the “D-Block”, commercial providers could have enabled public/private sharing — and rural broadband access. For everyone.

Public/private partnerships could still happen – in the 600 MHz band. How about 30 MHz for both cities and citizens on TV channels 31-36. Another 20 MHz is waiting on the AWS-3 band (2155-2175 MHz).

Make it free for municipalities. Now that’s economic stimulus!

Related stories on DailyWireless include; Alca-Lu’s LTE Public Safety Network, D-Block Legislation Stalled, Seybold: Furgetabout Video on LTE Public Safety Band, Broadband Disability Act, Public Service Radio Convention, Public Safety Net Removed from Debt Ceiling Bill, The D-Block Gamble, D-Block Gets a Hearing, National Wireless Initiative, White House: D-Block to Police/Fire, State of the Spectrum, SF Announces LTE First Responder Net, Riot in D Block, Why Cops Don’t Just Use Cell Phones, SF Announces LTE First Responder Net, The 700MHz Network: Who Pays?, Public Safety Spectrum Grab, Oregon’s $600M Public Safety Network Likely Killed, Bay Area 700 MHz Net in Altercation , SF Announces LTE First Responder Net, New York Cancels Statewide Wireless Network, M/A-COM to NY: We’re Good, The D-Block Gamble, National Wireless Initiative, White House: D-Block to Police/Fire, White Space War, White Space To Go, White Spaces Get IEEE Standard, Broadcasters: Portable Devices Kill DTV, Mud Fight in White Space, LTE Vrs WiMAX: It’s a Wrap!, The 700 Mhz Club

Posted by Sam Churchill on Wednesday, February 15th, 2012 at 10:34 am .

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