Trust between partners is critical to successful public/private broadband partnerships, said James Baller, a partner with Keller & Heckman, a law firm with a specialty in telecom.
A good public/private partnership agreement addresses dozens of variables, Baller told attendees on a webcast about such partnerships yesterday. Nevertheless, he said, “You can’t write an agreement that covers everything; you have to have a true sense of partnership and participation.”
Public/private broadband partnerships can take a variety of forms, but what they all have in common is a partnership between a public entity, such as a municipality or municipally owned utility company and a private entity, typically a broadband network operator.
Not everyone likes the concept, as evidenced by 19 states that have restrictions on such partnerships.
“Often it’s not an outright ban,” said Sean Stokes, another Keller & Heckman partner, on the webinar. Instead, he said some of those states have barriers to such partnerships.
He added, though, that “We’re starting to see a loosening” of some of these restrictions. States that have loosened or are considering loosening restrictions include Arkansas, Missouri, Florida, Idaho, Nebraska and Washington, he said.
Telecompetitor also has noticed an increase in public/private broadband partnerships and greater acceptance of the concept. Our coverage for 2020 included numerous examples of public/private broadband partnerships between telecom providers and rural electric membership cooperatives.
We’ve also covered a string of public/private broadband partnerships that Consolidated Communications has made with municipalities in the company’s New England service area.
Baller noted that some states are going beyond lifting restrictions and are taking steps to encourage public/private broadband partnerships. He noted, for example, that in Virginia, certain types of broadband funding are only available to public/private partnerships.
Advice for Partners
Keller & Heckman attorneys offered a range of advice for entities considering or planning public/private broadband partnerships.
The process of issuing requests for information (RFIs) and requests for qualifications (RFQs) can be a valuable one in several different ways, noted Baller.
Baller cited the example of a public entity Keller & Heckman worked with that got interest from 12 different operators in response to one of these requests. Based on the responses, the client realized that it might make sense to use different entities for different aspects of the community’s broadband plans.
In some cases, the RFI and RFQ process may even eliminate the need for the public/private broadband partnership, which isn’t a bad thing if the ultimate goal is broadband for the community.
In one case, the RFI/RFQ process “so frightened the incumbent” that the incumbent made the decision to deploy a gigabit network in the community, Baller noted.
A local champion who has “a vision for the community” and is “willing to work tirelessly to ensure success,” can also be a critical success factor, Baller said.
Having people involved who have a “substantial body of knowledge and experience with regard to the responsibilities they will be taking on” is also important; the most successful public/private partnerships involve people with experience in broadband, he said.
Finally, Baller added, “Don’t take on assignments that someone else can do better or less expensively.”
Updated to say that RFQ stands for “request for qualifications”