San Diego Broadband: Securing a Promising Future

"Strategies include the city as network owner and Internet service provider, the city as investor and co-owner of the electronic infrastructure, the city as organizer of a community network, and the city as subsidizer of broadband subscribers"

by / March 9, 2006
Matt Skinner is a student at San Diego State University

In the fourth quarter of 2003, San Diego became the first major metropolitan market in which the majority of Internet users connected through a broadband service rather than a slower provider. This is a good beginning and puts San Diego at an advantage. However, without extensive support for broadband, the county may fall behind other regions that offer a better broadband infrastructure and a more promising economy.

Matt Skinner
In January of 2005, the United States ranked only16th in per capita broadband usage worldwide. Municipalities around the country from Philadelphia to San Francisco are recognizing the importance of solid broadband policies by subsidizing their development through government funds.

There are currently more than 100 municipalities in the United States with networks in place for public safety, business opportunity and community building. Even New Orleans has begun offering free Wi-Fi wireless Internet access throughout the city in an effort to promote economic development following the recent hurricane disasters. This decision to fund such a program in a time of economic crisis evidences the extent to which city leaders perceive broadband to be an essential component of the current and future global economy.

The most effective way to ensure San Diego's place among America's most prosperous cities is to develop a broadband infrastructure that provides low-cost access to all San Diegans. There are currently only two broadband providers in San Diego county, each charging nearly $40 a month for their service which is not available in certain areas of the county.

Municipality-supported broadband networks are often opposed by those who believe the government should not interfere with the competition among private broadband providers. Major cities and rural communities across the country have faced teams of lawyers representing telecommunications companies attempting to prevent municipalities from establishing their own broadband infrastructures. Naturally, none of the service providers want to lose business to a publicly funded broadband infrastructure.

However, the threat of municipal broadband networks can benefit overall public broadband access. The push for public broadband in the Tri-Cities area of Illinois, for example, ultimately resulted in expanded access after local telecommunications companies fought to gain market share by improving their services. Philadelphians will be charged less than $20 a month for access to the city's Earthlink developed Wi-Fi network. These are excellent examples of capitalism and competition working to the benefit of the people.

However, many cities such as San Diego have a system in place where competition between providers is less fierce. A stagnant situation such as this does not promote the progress necessary for a city to achieve a strong economic hold in the impending Information Age.

The key to developing an effective broadband infrastructure in San Diego is to maintain a delicate balance between municipal and private ownership. The initial push provided by government policy can spark competition among private service providers and eventually create an ideal situation where San Diegans have low cost access to high speed broadband.

In a 2004 study that examined European cities, several roles were identified that governments may use when promoting broadband infrastructure. These strategies include the city as network owner and Internet service provider, the city as investor and co-owner of the electronic infrastructure, the city as organizer of a community network, and the city as subsidizer of broadband subscribers.

Findings concluded that the most successful type of policy is that of the city as investor and co-owner of the electronic infrastructure. This policy allows cities to build an infrastructure so private companies can compete on the basis of their services. Everyone ultimately wins under this philosophy. The city is able to attract more business to its region through an extensive broadband network, Internet service providers maintain their customer base and can focus on improving their services instead of investing in infrastructure, and the general public is provided with a lower-cost network that responds to their needs through healthy competition between providers.

San Diego County should promote a broadband infrastructure while playing the investor and co-owner role. By adopting this role the perfect balance between government and private involvement can be attained. The resulting effects of widespread broadband access are positive for the geographic region and its residents. Broadband adoption has been demonstrated to enhance social relationships. This is important in the United States and San Diego in particular, where there has been a gradual decline in social capital and the involvement of people in their communities.

Broadband infrastructure can also stimulate economic growth by attracting more educated workers and the companies that employ them. San Diego is a city of three major universities that graduate thousands of highly educated young people every year. The city and region would do well to support broadband and retain more of these college graduates to be employed locally and contribute to San Diego's economy and future.

Technology is constantly evolving and choosing between Wi-Fi, WiMAX, DSL, and broadband over power line (BPL) technologies may be limiting for a municipality that desires to remain up-to-date on technological developments. However, creating an infrastructure that combines available networks can easily surmount this obstacle. This option fits San Diego well, considering the region has 75,000 miles of underground fiber-optic cable and 220 wireless access locations -- among the highest in the country.

A Wi-Fi network could supplement a wire-based network by providing coverage in convenient public places, including outdoor locations San Diegans enjoy so frequently. Additionally, the existence of a wireless network can benefit city governments by linking offices and departments to improve efficiency and provide Internet access to all employees in the field. San Diego is in a favorable position because it is already very well connected. All that must be done at this point is create a policy that takes advantage of the resources available.