How a Fiber Master Plan Is Guiding Shawnee, Kan.’s Path to Connectivity

Creative partnerships and modest annual investments allow opportunities for continued growth for the city’s broadband network.

by / January 8, 2016

Big cities plan for growth because they have to, but when smaller cities do it, a world of opportunities opens up. Shawnee, Kan., a city of about 60,000 people just outside of Kansas City, is reaping the benefits of a fiber master plan that dates back more than a decade. Creative partnerships and modest annual investments provide the city with a broadband network that supports schools and businesses, enables potential upgrades to cutting-edge technologies, and allows opportunities for continued growth.

After partnering with a local broadband provider known in 2005 as SureWest (now called Consolidated Communications), the city began building a private network to power its business applications. When Google selected Kansas City as its first Fiber City in 2011, Shawnee saw an opportunity to expand its network further. In 2014, the city continued building, adding an additional four miles of inner-city fiber. Shawnee is now partnering with Unite Private Networks to add nine additional miles of fiber to connect local schools, and city administrators say their network will make it possible to adopt new traffic management and surveillance systems if they so desire.

Shawnee’s blueprint for broadband was what officials call their Fiber Optic Master Plan, a long-term strategy that established how the city would pay for the upgrades and prevent management from losing focus over the years. Fiber master plans have historically proven essential to the success of many cities’ networks, said Chris Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

"A master plan shows that a community is thinking about the long term,” Mitchell said. "That's important because if you want to build a fiber network across the city tomorrow, it's very expensive. But if you want to build it over 15 years as part of other investments, it can cost effectively nothing or even negative dollars in the sense that over time it can start generating revenue by being able to lease parts of it or just costing far less than the alternative would have."

That's what Shawnee did. The city set aside between $75,000 and $100,000 each of the past 15 years, which amounts to about a $1 million investment thus far. Non-compete clauses in the city's agreements with Google and Consolidated Communications allowed expansion at the lowest possible costs. But buildouts enabled by conditional partnerships have an obvious downside, Mitchell said.

"That gives a city more ability to have public savings in the future, but it doesn't allow them to really encourage economic development and it doesn't encourage them to engage in a kind of partnerships that would bring competition to the market," he said. "But if you have a local government that just doesn't have the money to do it any other way, it's a great way of connecting libraries and schools."

Connecting the city's private institutions was the goal all along, said Mel Bunting, director of Shawnee's Information Technology Department, and they couldn't have done it without collaboration and partnership. Local partners in Kansas that are sharing technology and resources in Shawnee's continued buildouts include Overland Park, Lenexa and Johnson County. By finding local partners with common interests, such as shared wastewater infrastructure or shared school districts, partnership isn't far away, Bunting said.

"It is about business relationships," Bunting said. "It is about having the right players inside your organization that embrace that collaborative mindset. It's somewhat of a cultural change in that it’s more of a partnering kind of mindset. I think we as a city have to be forward thinking of how this changes our technology and how we manage our city."

Getting executives to understand the importance of treating broadband as a central component of a city's infrastructure can be difficult, Bunting said, but with the right people championing the broadband cause, it can happen anywhere.

"The takeaway’s that there has to be a vision and it has to be marketed and promoted within your city and you acquire the funding and just begin in a series of initiates reaching out," Bunting said. "Just putting it out there as a key component to your city and making people aware that it has to be reconciled from a standpoint of a decision-making perspective. Whether we're going to act on it or we're not [is not a foregone conclusion], but at least get to the point where it's a discussion item to be voted on."

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.