Another Municipal Model

Seal_of_San_FranciscoCity officials in San Francisco recently issued a report that takes a very different stance than most other cities that are looking at broadband issues. The city essentially rejects the normal demand-based commercial model for broadband and looks at a new structure that will bring broadband to everybody.

The report is authored by the office of supervisor Mark Farrell and reflects some of the recommendations from the San Francisco Municipal Fiber Advisory Panel. The report very correctly observes that today’s commercial broadband model leaves a lot of citizens without broadband. Numerous nationwide surveys have shown that the majority of households without broadband access today feel they cannot afford the market prices for service.

So the San Francisco report recommends that the City institute a $26 per month fee on all households – with a higher fee on businesses – to help pay for broadband to everyone. They further recommend a public private partnership model to operate the business and assume that tiered pricing will still allow for profitability for a commercial partner.

The numbers are based upon an estimate that it would cost $867.3 million to build a fiber network in the city and $231.7 million per year to maintain the network. In my experience in looking at other large cities, both numbers feel very high. One has to assume in an open access network where fiber was built to everybody that the ongoing maintenance expenses for a network would be far lower than that since much of those costs would accrue to the ISPs and not to the city.

The city is not the first place that has looked at paying for fiber using taxpayer money, but they are by far the largest. A few small communities like Leverett, Massachusetts have paid for fiber construction with tax levies. The city of North Kansas City built a network and essentially is giving free service to residents for the next ten years. And the Utopia system in Utah recently looked at the tax-payer funding model, although it looks like a lot of the communities involved are rejecting the idea.

It’s a very interesting concept that has a bunch of pros and cons. On the plus side this would certainly solve the digital divide if every household in a community had a fiber connection. There would still be the issue to solve of making sure that everybody has a computer, but that seems like an easier problem to solve than getting the fiber network built to everybody.

But I can foresee a few major hurdles in implementing such an idea in an NFL city, such as the following:

  • The City probably doesn’t have the right to insist that they can bring fiber into apartment buildings. The FCC has made it clear that building owners have the right to control the wiring and the access to services on their own property. Many of the apartment owners will already have made a long-term contractual arrangement and be doing revenue sharing with the local cable company or some other service provider.
  • One can envision multiple lawsuits from citizens and businesses that wouldn’t want the city solution or who won’t want to pay the fee. It’s one thing to do this in a tiny town like Leverett, MA where there was no existing broadband, but in a large city there are bound to be many who don’t want the city doing this.
  • This is such a drastic solution that it surely would invite legislative action and multiple lawsuits from the incumbent providers. California is one of the states that allows for municipal competition, but using direct tax revenues to compete against the existing broadband providers would raise legitimate concerns about unfair competition. One can envision attempts to pass state or national legislation that would outlaw the proposed business plan. ISPs would use every tool at their disposal to fight this for fear that it might work and could spread elsewhere.

As the report points out, cities have a broadband dilemma today. Even where there is fiber or good broadband today there are a lot of households that can’t afford broadband. The report estimates there are over 100,000 people in San Francisco that can’t afford the market price for broadband and another 50,000 that still use dial-up.

There is also the issue of carriers building to just some parts of a city. One only has to look at all of the east coast cities that have Verizon FiOS to see the result of allowing commercial broadband providers to cherry-pick in markets. These cities have some neighborhoods with fast fiber broadband and competition between the telco and the cable company (which many observe is not real competition). But they have many neighborhoods without fiber and none of these cities can formulate a business plan that can justify bringing fiber to the neighborhoods that Verizon bypassed as too expensive to build.

The San Francisco report was a little fuzzy on a few of the details, which is natural since those details can only be made clear through negotiations with carriers willing to operate on such a network. You have to give the city kudos for creativity. But I foresee a big uphill battle if they try to implement this. But it’s an idea that should work if it can overcome the opponents that will spend huge money to try to prevent it.

2 thoughts on “Another Municipal Model

  1. “There would still be the issue to solve of making sure that everybody has a computer, but that seems like an easier problem to solve than getting the fiber network built to everybody.”

    The issue of having a computer is a canard cooked up by incumbents to keep the conversation in 1999 and raise the question: “Why should be modernize and build out our infrastructure when customers don’t even use a computer.” That’s nonsense. FTTP connections provide voice and video as well as data. It’s just another stall tactic.

    • Actually, that concept was backed up by a recent Pew Research poll that asked people why they didn’t have broadband and there was still a sizable slice of folks who said they couldn’t afford to have a computer.

      But I agree with you generally. Nowadays it would be worthwhile to have a home data connection if only to supply data to a cellphone and/or cheap tablet. Landline broadband is still a ton cheaper than cellular broadband.

      But there are still people in the world who supply that as the reason why they don’t buy broadband.

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