In February 2010, the Mayor of Duluth, MN jumped into the icy waters of Lake Superior. A month later, the Mayor of Sarasota, FL got into a tank full of sharks. That same month, the city of Topeka, KS changed its name. What these and many other stunts had in common was that they were designed to convince Google that their town was the best place to build its first Gigabit fiber network. More than 1,100 cities competed in this beauty contest. The single, lucky winner was Kansas City.
About five years earlier, conditions in the market were very different. I was sitting in a conference room in San Francisco. I was representing the City of San Francisco in negotiations with Google and Earthlink to construct a citywide Wi-Fi network. That project failed, at least in part due to a clash between the red tape served up by the city and the red carpet expected by the providers. The parties got frustrated or bored and walked away.
The market seems to have now concluded that Google’s fiber model is the way of the future. Create scarcity by holding a contest for cities to compete to be the first location for a new breakthrough service. Determine where and when to make service available by getting neighborhoods to compete by aggregating their demand. Rinse and repeat, right? Maybe not. I think many questions remain about whether this model can scale beyond an experiment.
Using these strategies, Google did find a way to get local governments to reconsider and, maybe, streamline their red tape — rights of way, utility pole attachments, and universal service requirements. And they cleared up a central point of confusion from the experiment with San Francisco years earlier — who is the buyer and who is the seller. And other providers are now following their lead. CSpire, a mobile operator in Mississippi, recently convinced 33 towns to compete to “Get Fiber First.” Nine of the 33 towns who competed were chosen.
All of these developments suggest that Google’s model may be repeatable. By all accounts, the folks in Kansas City, and soon Austin and Provo are thrilled with the progress in their towns. And I am sure the nine towns in Mississippi are happy about CSpire’s selection. But where does this leave the 24 towns that weren’t chosen by CSpire? And what about the 1,100 towns who danced for Google and didn’t “win”? At the risk of making the perfect the enemy of the good here, I will argue that this is where the challenge lies.
What do the hundreds, thousands of communities who recognize the importance of being part of the Gigabit movement do now? I might argue that, a dangerous precedent was set by the Google Fiber RFP and CSpire contests. Are there communities now sitting idle and waiting for another ISP to surface — for another RFI or RFP to come out — dreaming up new stunts to attract the attention of these knights in shining armor? I admit, this seems like the worst, most cynical view of where things could stand. Many communities are making progress in private partnerships, planning community networks, building networks with municipal and cooperative electric partners, pursuing grant and other sources of funding. But many also appear to be lying dormant.
What seems most important is that communities play a proactive role in driving progress in this area. Communities should think about their role at the table. The actor Jude Law was quoted once to say “I’m only wanted by directors for the image I give off, and it makes me angry. I always wanted to be an actor and not a beauty pageant winner.” That’s the attitude that will move communities forward.
Gigabit has quickly become the new gold standard for broadband services. After the beauty contest for cities held by Google Fiber, and their decision to deploy first in Kansas City, communities everywhere now want these services. Combine this with successful, large-scale FTTH projects by municipal electrics in places like Bristol VA, Lafayette LA, and Chattanooga, TN — and the question of whether communities and consumers need Gigabit ceases to matter anymore. They want it.
But how does a community get there? Google has cherry-picked only a few towns to experiment with. Most communities don’t have municipal electric companies. And less-than-Gigabit services from the private-sector, like Verizon FIOS and AT&T U-Verse, are confined to the suburbs – or denser, more affluent areas. What options exist for the thousands of communities that remain?
Communities that lack the tolerance for financial risk, access to capital, or technical and operational abilities to build their own network often turn to public private partnerships (PPPs) — and the challenge then becomes how to attract a partner, and how to structure the terms of the partnership to balance public benefit with investment return.
Universal service goals often end up on the negotiating table. Can universal service for these kinds of networks be achieved? Is it good policy to mandate that all neighborhoods and businesses be served by these new advanced services? I will argue here that it is not, and here’s why:
- In most cases, these projects require expensive over-builds of copper networks. A nationwide buildout of FTTH has been estimated to cost $140B – more capital than is likely to be invested by the public and private sectors combined in the coming years. Even if a provider makes the investment in FTTH, they often end up sharing the market with legacy services like DSL and cable, and those legacy services are often “good enough” to water down the business case for overbuilding where the economics are already challenging.
- In areas like Kansas City where Google’s fiber deployment has been prioritized according to demand, even neighborhoods that failed to meet their pre-registration goals have benefitted collaterally. For example, consider the work of the KC FreedomNetwork, a nonprofit wireless internet service specifically designed for low-income households. The deployment of Google Fiber in the more high-demand areas opened the door for other individuals and organizations to mobilize around serving the lower-demand areas. Is this perfect or ideal? No. But it’s better than an alternative where a requirement to serveall neighborhoods would have resulted in Google not deploying in any neighborhoods.
- Early, targeted Gigabit experiments provide value to the overall market by providing a laboratory for experimentation. Even though these deployments are often not universal, they do provide opportunities for early-adopters, engineers, hackers and many others to uncover the next breakthrough applications that exploit gigabit-speeds. Once discovered, these applications may pave the way for new revenue streams that encourage FTTH investments in lower-demand areas. When PCs were introduced in the 1980s, not everyone had them. In the end, it wasn’t regulations and mandates that drove millions of consumers to prioritize PCs — it was the creation of killer applications like WordStar and Lotus 123.
Broadband is a necessity, but when it comes to advanced services like Gigabit, communities should not lose the opportunity to be a part of the experiment because they can’t reach every home and business immediately. That would be making the perfect the enemy of the good.
There are great examples where these approaches are being used by communities that would otherwise certainly be left out of the move to Gigabit. Consider the nine communities in Mississippi that were selected through a very innovative program by CSpire, a large independent mobile operator. CSPire’s FAQ on the program clearly states that “There will be a $10 pre-registration fee. The fee may be refundable if we do not build your specific location, or applied as an account credit if we do. Pre-registration is required to determine the neighborhood(s) to build first.”
Deploy-to-demand is quickly becoming the model for advanced FTTH gigabit-speed services. CrowdFiber™ helps communities and service providers organize their projects, aggregate their demand, and prioritize their investments. Get started by creating a new campaign here.
This week we released several important enhancements forCrowdFiber™.
Backing a campaign requires aCrowdFiber™ account. This ensures that users can return to the site to manage their campaign, review or cancel pledges, track status and so on. Previously, creating aCrowdFiber™ account required a separate sign-up process and a confirmation email. We have streamlined this sign-up process and make it more integrated with the process of backing a campaign.
Now, when a new user visits a Campaign on the site, they start by entering their address and clicking Search. CrowdFiber™ determines if their address is within the campaign area, checks to see what Zone it’s in, and presents the user with a Backer Form.
On the Backer Form, the user selects a Pledge Level, enters their name and email address, and proceeds to authorize payment through Amazon Payments. If the user is new to the site and doesn’t have aCrowdFiber™ account, they are asked to choose a password. The user’sCrowdFiber™ account is then created, their Backer contribution is recorded, and they are sent an email confirmation and Thank You.
For Campaign Owners, we now support tracking of abandoned or unsuccessful address searches. By clicking on the Campaign Data tab on their Dashboard, Campaign Owners can review all address searches that did not result in a successful Backer contribution. This allows Campaign Owners to better understand where searches are coming from, and to proactively help users who ran into problems backing their campaign.
Support for Multi-Dwelling Units and Business Parks
There is now an (optional) Apartment/Suite number on the address search form. This allows users who may have the same street address — as in apartments, multi-family units and business parks — to back campaigns individually. Previously, users were sometimes entering this suite/apartment number as part of their street address, so the separate field should cut down on failed address searches in those situations.
Meet Crowdfiber Co-Founders from Crowdfiber on Vimeo.
Co-founders Greg Richardson and Bailey White share the story behind CrowdFiber and why communities should become gigabit-connected.
With CrowdFiber all set to launch next week, I felt it was an appropriate time to communicate the background and inspiration for this project. After next week, we will shift into the day-to-day business of helping organizations create campaigns, supporting new customers, and building a new business. Best to get this down in writing before things get too hectic.
WHAT IS CROWDFIBER?
CrowdFiber is an online marketplace where service providers, local governments, utilities, community organizations, interested citizens, consumers and businesses can organize around the goal of building, investing in and sustaining Gigabit communities. (more…)