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Municipal Broadband Efforts Succeed Despite Wi-Fi Meltdown

Broadband Internet connectivity helps cities diversify economies and boost efficiency.

Given the implosion of the national municipal Wi-Fi craze, what should local governments that are still seeking some form of municipal broadband do next? The good news is they don't have to start from scratch. Not all the municipal-broadband efforts of the past few years failed:

  • The municipal fiber-optic network in Bristol, Va., earned the city a spot on the Intelligent Community Forum's Top Seven list of "most intelligent communities" -- the only U.S. city to make the cut. Bristol's network offers broadband, cable TV and telephone service.
  • Corpus Christi, Texas, purchased back its Wi-Fi network from EarthLink after the company left the muni-broadband business. The project saves the city money because the network is used for electronic-meter reading.
  • A government-installed Wi-Fi network in Greene County, N.C., diversified a local economy once reliant on tobacco.
  • And connectivity in downtown Houston that lets citizens pay for street parking with credit cards paid for itself after six months.
Where many highly publicized wireless failures -- like those in Philadelphia and San Francisco -- went wrong was relying on vendors' promises to build free networks in exchange for Wi-Fi transmitter space on city streetlights, towers and other assets. Vendors hoped the networks would create a bonanza of consumer broadband subscriptions that would pay for the installation costs.

Industry wisdom appears to have boiled down to this: Cities can't treat municipal-broadband networks like trendy clothes. As peer pressure to install municipal Wi-Fi networks grew, cities became convinced they needed municipal Wi-Fi to be "cutting edge."

Instead, successful municipal wireless networks fulfill specific community needs. Municipal broadband hasn't worked for every city, but for the ones in which it does, the advantages can be transformational.


Serving the Underserved

Given the failures of municipal networks aimed at providing commercial services, like in-home broadband subscriptions, one might assume government shouldn't try offering them. However, city and county networks that sell commercial broadband can work in areas that vendors won't serve. For example, Bristol, Va., recently became the only U.S. city named in the New York-based Intelligent Community Forum's Top Seven Intelligent Communities of 2009, in recognition of the city's municipal-broadband network. Bristol Virginia Utilities (BVU), a public utility, runs the fiber-based network, which provides telephone, cable television and broadband services to 65 percent of the city. The fiber powers free Wi-Fi at the local mall and government buildings. Many citizens also use the network for Wi-Fi in their homes, said Wes Rosenbalm, president and CEO of the BVU.

Photo: Bristol, Va., has an advanced fiber-to-the-home network that provides free Wi-Fi access to residents and has lured businesses to the area.

"For various reasons, 35 percent of the population does not have our services. In some cases, that's because it's an apartment building that we're not allowed into -- things of that nature. A fiber-optic overbuild of 65 percent penetration is impressive. They usually run in the 30 to 35 percent range," Rosenbalm said. In addition, all commercial buildings in Bristol can access the network.

The utility funded the network with bonds and federal grant money. The project cost $21 million. Rosenbalm expects the network to pay for itself in 12 to 15 years. One could argue the investment has already paid off because the network enticed technology companies Northrop Grumman and CGI to open business there. "They brought 700 jobs that paid an average salary of $50,000," Rosenbalm said. "Our average salary is somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000."

Bristol's network succeeded where many municipal-broadband projects failed because the city was responding to a genuine need rather than desire for a novelty, Rosenbalm said. Bristol couldn't get a major vendor to build

a similar fiber-optic infrastructure in the city, and the project wouldn't have been profitable enough for a telecommunications company's stockholders, Rosenbalm explained.

The fact that a city-affiliated public utility doesn't face the same profit pressures as a private business made municipal Wi-Fi a good fit for the BVU, Rosenbalm added. The network began full service in 2003. Also, unlike several of the municipal-broadband networks attempted elsewhere, Bristol's project didn't center on free services. Citizens pay for access to the fiber.

"Our basic cable package is $36.75, and that includes 80 channels. Our basic phone line is $14. With broadband, it depends on what speed you get," Rosenbalm said, adding that the BVU's prices were less than or comparable to rates offered by other providers in Virginia.

Planning for the network began in 1999, when the BVU only intended to connect its own substations. Once the substations were linked, the city requested the infrastructure also connect government buildings. Private businesses began asking for the ability to connect to the fiber. Realizing it had a project that potentially could serve the entire city, the BVU conducted two surveys.

"One survey was internal. Another was done through RT Nielson to make sure citizens wanted this kind of infrastructure and service," Rosenbalm said. "Both were very positive. We ran two business process plans by two sources to make sure it made sense financially. Then we took the step of moving forward into doing it for every citizen who wanted it in Bristol."


Surviving Without Tobacco

While Bristol funded its own broadband network to become more sophisticated, Greene County, N.C., used municipal broadband to stay alive.

By the early 2000s, declining demand for tobacco had devastated the Greene County economy. In 2005, the municipality initiated a program called Beyond Tobacco that aimed to make the local work force technologically competitive in the job market. "They were all farmers. A lot of them never graduated from high school. All they had ever known was how to do farm labor. We knew we had to change the entire community," said Misty Chase, director of Beyond Tobacco.

Chase followed a commonly executed three-pronged approach for digital-inclusion: broadband access, subsidized computer hardware and technology training. Initially the county couldn't find a provider to invest in broadband infrastructure, but the government scored a $572,000 grant to help fund its network. After collecting money of its own, the county had a total of $1.5 million for all three parts of its broadband strategy. Wavelength Broadband Internet, a North Carolina-based company specializing in rural broadband, joined the project to deploy wireless transmitters on city towers and water tanks. Beyond Tobacco purchased laptops, enabling every student in 6th grade through high school to take home their own. A side benefit was that parents learned to use computers and the Internet.


"The only way these kids get to bring this laptop home is if their parent goes through a training class," Chase said. "This way they know what their kids are doing on those computers. We all know kids can get into the wrong stuff."

The $1.5 million also funded 30 laptops for a mobile-training lab that Chase takes to the county's senior center, fire station, churches and other community organizations that adults visit. The vehicle does travel to schools, but Chase didn't want to force adults to learn shoulder-to-shoulder with schoolchildren.

"A lot of our people didn't feel comfortable going into schools because they never graduated from high school," Chase said. "We wanted it to be more about boosting morale about what they were doing as opposed to pushing them down."

The investment proved successful. Nearly 40 new businesses have moved to Greene County since it deployed its

municipal-broadband network in 2006. Chase said the broadband access empowered tobacco farmers to do Internet research that taught them ways to diversify their businesses. This prompted 12 tobacco farmers to enter the prawn farming business.

"We have a new yam processing facility that's state of the art because they were able to do Internet research that showed all the different things with a yam they could still use -- peelings and everything," Chase said.

A company that imprints tennis balls called Smart Play USA set up shop in Greene County. There's more. "We've got Accu Plan Industrial Drafting Services. They do blueprints for industry, as far as safety plans. We've got a new retail store called Sticks and More. They have a Web site, so they will start selling online," Chase said. Many at-home eBay businesses also sprouted.

Ninety-four percent of Greene County's graduating high-school seniors were accepted to college in 2008, according to Chase. Five years ago, only 24 percent of them were, she said. Chase attributes the improvement mostly to the county's broadband initiative.

"Some of them are going off to college, and they plan to come back here. Now they feel like we have given them things to come back to," Chase said.


Tried-and-True Route

One of the most effective drivers for municipal broadband is electronic meter reading. These days, most state and local government IT observers are familiar with the strategy. A government deploys the network and recovers its investment with the cost savings of electronically reading water and gas meters. Normally employees manually check the meters. Corpus Christi, Texas, invested $7.1 million in a Wi-Fi network for electronic meter reading in 2002. EarthLink later purchased the network from the city for $5.2 million, hoping to sell Internet service subscriptions to residences and businesses. The company paid Corpus Christi $3.5 million with $1.7 million to come later. When EarthLink abandoned municipal Wi-Fi, it gave the network back to Corpus Christi in exchange for escaping the remaining $1.7 million bill. In addition, the deal included $800,000 worth of Tropos Wi-Fi transmitters and $1.7 million in enhancements EarthLink made after buying the network.

"It was actually a pretty sweet deal," said John Sendejar, general manager of ConnectCC, the city's Wi-Fi program.

Corpus Christi is in the fourth year of its seven-year electronic meter reading rollout. The network should pay for itself in roughly 12 years, reported Sendejar.

As is common for these networks, Corpus Christi will use the technology to power mobile applications for government field workers, thereby tightening efficiency. Typically field workers went back to the office at the end of the day to enter data manually to a government server. Animal control officers and restaurant and fire inspection workers use the network for that purpose in Corpus Christi. Building inspectors will soon join that group, said Sendejar.

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.