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« More Connect the Dots | Main | Philadelphia's CIO: Flame On! »

February 10, 2005

Point and Counterpoint on Municipal Broadband

Mobile Pipeline runs two politely contrasting views on municipal broadband: Now this is the kind of civil discourse that acknowledges facts on both sides of an opinion that I've been hoping for. Mobile Pipeline contrasts the "municipal broadband is costly and inappropriate" opinion of Dave Molta with the starry-eyed idealism--wait, that's hard-bitten realism--of David Haskin who argues that municipalities are stepping in where incumbents aren't willing to tread. (Disclosure: Haskin writes me checks in his capacity of editor of publications that I write for at CMP.)

Both authors point out that the NMRC report has a funding/disclosure bias, but both also tackle the issues within. Molta argues that the report was being attacked for its authors' connections; I'd take the opposite point that the report would have been better received with less furor had a picture been painted instead of I and other journalists having to track down the connections. Molta notes, "But beyond the cries of conspiracy lies some wisdom about technology, market competition and politics." I agree: I wrote a long post analyzing the best-founded aspects of the report.

Molta writes, "Building out metro-area Wi-Fi networks that deliver per-user throughput in excess of one megabit per second would likely require the deployment of thousands or tens of thousands of access points." That's fortunately incorrect. He hasn't studied the Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi-like metro-scale systems that are in actual use in many cities already. There are definitely scaling issues, but we're not talking about building clouds of Wi-Fi access with ubiquitous rates within the cloud for roaming users.

Rather, this is much more like the WiMax point-to-multi-point standard. Talk to Tropos, PacketHop, Belair, and SkyPilot, and then we can revisit this statement. (I've talked to two of the four and will be writing more about them all in the future.) Talk to San Mateo, Oklahoma City, Chaska (Minn.), Buffalo (Minn.), and Corpus Christi, and then get back to me.

Molta ignores the issue of service and availability. Incumbents work best with competition. A lack of competition causes them to focus infrastructure building into other areas. When I spoke with Tacoma Power about their fiber-optic/coax network, they said they were dragged kicking and screaming into offering broadband services because they couldn't convince the incumbents to provide the services their communities were demanding. This is a statement made by virtually all municipalities considering or who have built fiber, coax, and wireless networks. (Haskin also notes a problem in arguing that municipalities are subsidized for their deployments: "The very telcos that have been so bitterly fighting municipal networks have received billions of dollars in government subsidies for doing things like creating fiber optic networks.")

Finally, Haskin and Molta both miss a truly fundamental aspect of municipal networks that the NMRC report disregarded: public safety. That's fire, police, emergency. The reason many municipalities even started planning for their own networks is that they have 10 or 20 year old networks, some based on the soon-to-be-dead CDPD cell data standard, that they need to upgrade for the modern exigencies of less staff, more needs, and homeland security. (Shouldn't someone write a report from the conservative side called, "Municipal Networks: the Bulwark of Effective Home Security and Surveillance?")

Most municipal networks that are founded in sense--for instance, let's just throw San Francisco's broad pronouncements out the window right now--incorporate governmental access by roaming agents (parking enforcement, building inspection, meter readers, and so forth); public safety purposes (police reporting and information retrieval, dispatch); emergency response; video surveillance; and improved bandwidth and networking in remote offices outside of central governmental buildings. Tacoma Power's fiber/coax network recovers so much cost operationally--from monitoring, response, and productivity--that they had planned to build it before the benefits of adding cable and broadband services were layered on top.

Broadband service to the home and business is one leg of the network, but governments are often building these networks to begin with to provide 21st century field support and efficiency to public safety and other government employees. It's all about what the government and its citizens both need and what incumbents aren't motivated to provide in a timely, efficient, and cost-effective manner. Incumbents shouldn't be saddled with the responsibility of that kind of service, and they shouldn't be fighting so hard to prevent effective discussion of it.


GF: (Shouldn’t someone write a report from the conservative side called, “Municipal Networks: the Bulwark of Effective Home Security and Surveillance?”)

Hah! We're already working on it at New York University's Urban Research Center. The report will be out in about 8 weeks.
Municipal Wireless Networks and Public Safety: Opportunities and Challenges for Domestic Preparedness

I enjoy your well reasoned approach to this subject. I was unaware of the public safety aspect of municipal proposals. I've only really heard of the SF pronouncement because in this area, that's the kind of lunacy I expect from municipalities. I disagree with your posting on it's comparison too electricity. That electricity has played a major role since it was rolled out is undeniable. However, to imply that these advancements wouldn't have been possible without municipal intervention is a big leap. Maybe if the municipalities had try to foster competition, such as building pipes to facilitate wiring instead of getting in the electrical business, the infrastructure for FTTH would already be in place. Your electricity analogy just points to my greatest fear, which is once most "rich" municipalities have solutions, people will start to clamour about the unfairness and we'll have a new TVA.