Quantifying the Benefits of Fiber

san_francisco_skyline-wideFour times in the last two weeks I have been asked the question about how to value the public benefits of operating a fiber network. It’s a fair question, because anybody that builds a fiber network for a whole community brings added value beyond just the monetary value of the revenues of the network to the service provider.

Fiber networks automatically bring a number of community benefits. With greater download speeds people are enabled to telecommute more or to work from home full-time. Communities with fiber generally see a surge in entrepreneurship. Fiber speeds make it easier for people to partake in advanced video services like distance learning or telemedicine. Applications that require bandwidth are just starting to burgeon due to the expanding number of people with broadband.

But my clients weren’t asking about those ‘normal’ benefits of fiber. What they really wanted to know is if there is something more that they could and should be doing after they have built a fast network.

Each of these carriers had made a list of ideas they wanted to discuss with me, and interestingly, they all had two of the same things on their list. First, they wanted to know if it made sense to use their fast network to bring community-wide WiFi to their service area. They also are interested in looking harder at the digital divide—particularly at the idea of making sure that every school kid in their community has access to broadband at home.

Even more specifically, they wanted to understand if there is a model for helping to pay for these ideas. They were already convinced that these are good ideas and they wanted to know if there was some ways to monetize them.

And that is a really good question. I will have two upcoming blogs that will look at the business case that can be made for these two ideas. But today I want to take more time to look at the general idea of using a fast network to bring benefits to the community.

It’s really hard to measure the social benefits of doing something like broadband. It’s fairly easy to make a list of the ways that broadband can positively affect a community. But it’s nearly impossible to put a dollar value on most of those benefits. I remember a few years ago reading a report that Seattle commissioned that quantified the value of a fiber network for the city. I don’t remember the exact bottom line conclusion, but it estimated a really big dollar benefit for the community, something like $1 billion over a few years. I recall that the benefits were greater than the cost of building the network, and if those benefits were credible the city should have dropped everything to get this done.

But even a major fiber proponent like me had a hard time grasping some of the estimates that were made in the study. How can you really measure the value of things like telecommuting or being able to start a business from home? And how do you separate the value of fiber compared to the already existing benefits of broadband from cable modems and DSL? After all, people can work at home easily using a cable modem too (I am proof of that), and so the question becomes how can you figure out the incremental benefit of fiber?

In every study I have ever seen on the topic, somebody—usually an economist—develops some assumptions of the values created by fiber and then also estimates the number of times the benefit will be realized. That requires two major assumptions, neither of which can be verified.

But that doesn’t mean that value isn’t created, just that it’s nearly impossible to ever measure it even after it has happened. And this leads me to the conclusion that if you want to use a fiber network to do good, then find some way to pay for at least some part of what you are trying to accomplish and then go ahead and do it if you and the community are convinced it’s a good thing. You are never going to be able to find definitely proof of the community value of most ideas, even when you know those benefits are real.

I don’t see this as any different than many other things that are done for the public good. How can you measure the value of things like having a nice park in a city or of having a program to help the homeless? The answer is you can’t. But in most communities those kinds of things are done when the community reaches a consensus that it’s a thing worth doing. And I think that is the same way you look at the benefits of fiber. If the community wants the benefits that fiber can bring them, then the community and the network owner ought to be able to work together to make good things happen.