Fiber OpticsCities seem to be driving the broadband bus these days, with announcements of new city-level gigabit networks occurring almost weekly. As more and more cities forge their plans, some best practices are beginning to emerge.

Those best practices, as well as some out-of-the-box ideas, were the focus of a spirited panel discussion about how communities can drive America’s competitiveness at Broadband Communities’ Economic Development Conference in Tinley Park, Ill. yesterday

Instigators
The initial impetus for high-speed broadband deployments can come from a range of stakeholders, panelists said.

Gigabit Squared CEO Mark Ansboury noted, for example, that his company is sometimes called in by key employers that have had difficulty persuading network operators serving their communities to upgrade their infrastructure. Gigabit Squared is focused on deploying high-speed networks on a community-by-community basis.

Other groups that may drive broadband initiatives include economic development organizations and local governments, panelists noted. An example of the latter comes from Cook County, Illinois.

Cook County seeks to modernize
Local governments may have powerful reasons for wanting to upgrade their infrastructure, as the experiences of panelist Lydia Murray, chief information officer for Cook County, illustrate. Murray speculated that the county is the “largest purchaser of purple carbon paper in the world.” If, for example, someone files for divorce in the county, he or she is handed a purple carbon paper copy of the filing.

But while electronic alternatives would be more efficient and economical, the county’s current infrastructure couldn’t support a full-scale shift. “We’re budgeting $40 million in capex for next year and that will need to be sustained for a few years to take us out of purple paper operations,” said Murray.

The county is on a path to convert its locations to speeds up to 10 Gbps, starting with key locations like the county hospital and courthouse. But for clinics in underserved areas, the county hopes to find a partner that will own and operate the network.  The county also needs a backbone network, Murray said.

She added, however, that, “We don’t want to be an Internet service provider.” Instead she would rather see the county partner with a company like Gigabit Squared.

Cook County is finding more and more options that it can offer potential partners to minimize the partner’s risk. “We’re starting to understand the assets we have,” said Murray, pointing to rooftop rights and traffic signaling conduit as examples of those assets.

Offering a partner a level of certainty by leveraging such assets is “huge,” Murray said.

Out-of-the-box ideas
Some other ideas for driving high-speed broadband deployments from yesterday’s panel fall into the category of out-of-the-box-thinking. Among the most compelling of these were:

  • Communities wanting a high-speed broadband network should leverage existing gigabit networks in places like Chattanooga, Tenn. and Lafayette, La., advised Rollie Cole, senior fellow for the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research. For example, he said a community should consider sending its “best and brightest” to such communities to do split-testing of key applications so that they can document how much better those applications work on gigabit networks compared to their own.
  • The state of Indiana helped drive broadband usage by requiring anyone filing an unemployment claim to do so online, noted Cole. To support this requirement, libraries agreed to reserve certain public computers for filing these claims.
  • Murray offered an idea she is pursuing to gain the cooperation of individual cities within Cook County. The county previously invested in a geographic information system and is moving those tools to a municipal cloud so that individual cities can use them. “In return, we want data about zoning,” she said. Murray hopes that a central source of information about zoning requirements throughout the county will also be an asset the county can offer potential network partners.

Mayor-proofing
Another important idea panelists seemed to agree on was the importance of gaining a support base that can withstand political changes.

Stakeholders need to be focused on a “long-term vision,” said Ansboury. “Your time horizon has to exceed any political” changes, he said.

Citizens need to view broadband as “part of their essential needs,” he noted. When that vision gets broad buy-in, he said, deployment efforts can become “mayor-proof.”