Politics and Municipal Partnerships

ppp_logoOne of the hot topics around the industry today is the creation of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) with municipalities to provide fiber-based broadband. Today I want to talk a bit about the difference in partnering with a municipality compared to other commercial carriers.

Commercial carriers are often very used to partnering with each other. They will build fiber routes together and routinely share facilities. And many ISPs will outsource functions to another carrier when it makes economic sense. I see ISPs everywhere engaging in some very creative partnerships with other carriers.

But partnering with a municipality is different, mainly due to the very nature of how municipalities work. Any carrier that does not understand the differences and that doesn’t account for those differences in their plans is likely to get very frustrated over time with a municipal partner. Today I look at some political issues that arise in PPPs and I will look at financial and legal issues in subsequent blogs.

Municipalities are (by definition) political entities. The people at the top of the political pyramid are elected officials and that has to be considered when partnering with a municipality. The city you partner with today might not be the same city you find yourself working with in five years after a few elections. Change can happen with a commercial partner as well, but it’s rarely as abrupt or as expected.

I know one company that partnered with a city to build fiber and the city was an enthusiastic partner. But the next administration of the city came in with a bias against the city working to ‘enrich’ private businesses, and that partnership then became a lot more difficult to maintain. So the one thing that a good PPP needs is to be insulated from politics as much as possible. You don’t want to have the PPP structured in such a way that future decisions like raising rates or building new facilities must be approved by a city council.

It’s also important for a business to understand how slow municipalities are in making decisions. The whole municipal deliberative process is slow on purpose to give the public a chance to weigh in on things a city does. But it can drive a commercial entity crazy waiting for a municipal partner to make a decision when you are running a commercial business venture.

Another shock that those involved in PPPs are often surprised about is how everything they decide or do as part of the PPP is suddenly in the press. Local ISPs can often go for decades without making the paper for anything bigger than making a donation to a local charity. It’s very disturbing to see your business decisions discussed in the press, and often incorrectly.

Engaging in a PPP also can subject an ISP to an unusual kind of attack from the larger incumbent providers. They will make the argument that anything that a municipality provides as part of partnering with an ISP ought to be extended to all carriers. These arguments are labeled as ‘level playing field’ issues and incumbents can sound incredibly persuasive when talking about the unfair advantages given to one of their competitors (while ignoring the monopoly power they probably held over the city for decades before).

All of these issues can be managed as long as a carrier walks into a PPP arrangement fully aware of each of them and with a strategy for dealing with each one. Once a carrier has joined with a municipal partner they can never be free of these sorts of political issues – but they can structure the business arrangement in such a way as to minimalize the practical impact of them.

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