Voices of Digital Communities

You Will Never Stop Building Towers

Stockholm has done it. So has Dublin, Ohio and the entire nation of Australia. Next on the list: Lac Ste. Ann County?

by / January 13, 2014

Stockholm has done it. So has Dublin, Ohio and the entire nation of Australia.  Next on the list: Lac Ste. Ann County?  

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In December, I was in western Canada providing the services of our Community Acceleratorprogram to the government of Parkland County, Alberta, which is on the 2014 list of theSmart21 Communities of the Year.  Parkland County is a municipal district, which is a fairly common form of government in the sparsely populated province of Alberta.  With a population of 30,000, it has an average density of 32 people per square mile or 13 people per km². We’re talking rural.

I was there to address gatherings of citizens and small business owners in village halls, the traditional centers of village life that are being transformed into digital hubs thanks to Parkland County’sinfrastructure of wireless towers.  The county has not gone into the telecoms business: rather, it has built a network of towers, capitalized by grant funding, for wireless ISPs, mobile carriers and first-responder networks to equip with radios.  By building the utility-grade towers and interconnecting them with fiber, the county is drastically reducing companies’ cost of entry for serving new markets – in particular, low-density areas where a for-profit carrier would otherwise find it impossible to turn a profit.  The towers are already generating rental income and within a couple of years, will provide enough cash flow to fund continued operation and upgrade, while enabling the private sector to serve customers who would normally be on the wrong side of the digital divide.

It’s called open access, and it has worked in many cities and suburbs.  Parkland County is bringing the strategy to a rural place, and doing it with a mix of caution and daring – always with an eye on the bottom line – that are the hallmarks of successful community network deployment.

Part of that strategy involves helping surrounding counties and municipalities do the same thing.  The bigger the total network, the greater efficiencies Parkland County and its partners should enjoy, and the more leverage they will have with hardware, software and service providers.  So, one of my stops was in the City Council chambers ofLac Ste. Anne County, to the north of Parkland.  

We’re talking way rural here: 3.6 people per km2.  The Council was deliberating an investment in a few towers that would bring them into the Parkland County network, and members were concerned about the kinds of things Councils shouldworry about.  Would the investment lose money?  Would changes in technology make towers obsolete?  Would voters get upset to see towers rising on the horizon?  Al McCully of Parkland County and the network designer, Allan Bly, answered their questions.  Bly stressed the work that Parkland County had put into standardizing its tower designs, which eliminates the need for specialized antenna contractors and reduces long-term costs. 

Then he said something that every Intelligent Community should keep in mind when considering its broadband destiny. 

He cautioned that their decision was not a one-time thing but a first step.  Once people get a taste of real broadband, he said, “you will never stop building towers.”  

He was right.  When Intelligent Communities contemplate creating networks, all attention goes to that first, white-knuckle decision: do we or don’t we?  How will the private sector respond?  Will voters really be behind this or will there be a backlash after the inevitable problems arise?  Are we really able to pull this off?  

But once you enter the business of broadband infrastructure, you will always be in that business, just as you will always be in the business of maintaining roads and sidewalks, picking up garbage and fixing streetlights.  These are good businesses to be in, because they make your city or county a better place to live, work, start a business and raise the next generation.   And that’s why local government exists, isn’t it?

 

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.