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For Full Effect, Broadband Expansion Will Require Cooperation

Private investment, coupled with an unprecedented level of public investment from the recently passed infrastructure law, has presented the right mix of ingredients for even more public- and private-sector collaborations.

Closeup of a pile of yellow broadband cables with blue caps.
Thanks largely to the federal infrastructure law and incoming funding, now is the time to develop the sorts of public-private partnerships to grow broadband access for all residents and businesses, experts contend.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment. It’s probably a once-in-a-century moment. This is the moment in which we will solve many of our broadband problems, as a nation,” said Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology & Energy, a consulting firm for local governments. Hovis moderated a panel discussion Jan. 6 dedicated to strategies around broadband development.

Collaborations between the public and private sectors can take many forms. In some cases the public sector’s support is needed to make the “business case” for a telecom or broadband provider to introduce or expand service into a particular area. Public grants can help to bridge the divide.

“What’s so remarkable about the current moment, I think, is that there’s a far broader range of companies engaged in seeking collaboration opportunities with state and local government, and tribal government, than has ever been the case in the past,” Hovis added.

Alan K. Weiss, mayor of Greendale, Ind., recalled how his community was awarded a state grant totaling up to $635,000 to help fund a $3.5 million broadband project, led by Cincinnati Bell. The project, which will be required to connect every home and business with broadband, is set to be complete this year.

“We don’t have the ability to run a broadband company on our own, so we wanted a private company to come in, and with as little investment by the city as possible,” Weiss said during the panel discussion. “And it’s worked out very well.”

Large telecoms are currently investing about $20 billion a year in broadband expansion and upgrades, according to Jeff Luong, president of broadband access and adoption initiatives at AT&T. The industry as a whole, he added, is investing around $80 billion a year. The federal infrastructure package, meanwhile, has earmarked $65 billion for broadband infrastructure to be invested across the next five years.

“As big as that figure is, it’s not going to be able to go across the board,” Luong said of the federal investment, noting the need for the private sector’s role in broadband infrastructure expansion.

Rural areas and economically struggling neighborhoods have traditionally lacked robust broadband access. The reasons are many; but, in part, the high cost of deploying the infrastructure is often pointed to as the primary obstacle. This is where the public sector can step in, said Luong.

“We are building as quickly as we can,” he added. “Yet, there’s still a lot of areas that need connectivity, and there [are] a lot of areas that are very challenging to build to.

“What we need is we need the communities to help us bridge that gap,” said Luong.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.