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Broadband Scarcity and Stimulus Spur Community Networks

Local, regional and state governments and groups are converging their efforts to win federal money for broadband expansion.

Around the country, ad hoc groups are forming at the local, state and regional level made up of disparate entities — colleges, hospitals, libraries, counties, towns — united by the need for more bandwidth and mobilized by the promise of federal stimulus awards. Driven by a need for greater connectivity, many are planning to build and share networks, often in cooperation with the private sector.

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“Most states are looking at internal agencies, higher education, K-20 in some instances, public safety, 911 and police dispatch centers,” said Joel McCamley, senior vice president and division manager of telecommunications and technology services for L. Robert Kimball Associates, which is helping applicants secure stimulus funds. “We can converge a lot of things people are paying for individually today and stretch their dollar.”

In one example, Dan Gallagher began looking for ways to get more bandwidth after becoming executive director for IT with Cape Cod Community College four years ago. He found others on the cape with the same gripe. So a few of them got together and called a public meeting. More than 100 people showed up. Eventually they formed a committee made up of disparate stakeholders — municipalities, public schools, colleges, hospitals — that began designing a fix for the problem. They called their project OpenCape.

OpenCape secured $200,000 in seed funding. But when the opportunity for federal stimulus money appeared, the group saw not only opportunity but advantage: Where others were scrambling to draw up broadband proposals, they had one all ready.

OpenCape has proposed a regional data center, a fiber backbone covering Cape Cod (and connecting to existing backbones in Boston and Rhode Island), and a microwave wireless network spanning the cape and points beyond. The network would be wholesaled and open-access, and it would cover the middle mile, not the local loop. Gallagher hopes that, once the cost of building the middle mile is taken care of, private companies and others will be able to cost-justify building the last mile.

“The investment in backhaul changes the calculus [for private providers],” Gallagher said. “We hope to break down the barriers to market entry for other last-mile providers, whether they're wireless or wired — we don't care.”

OpenCape also wants to pool the needs of its members to increase their bandwidth and lower their infocomm costs. Currently there are 15 towns on the cape, each with its own geographic information system. OpenCape would consolidate them into a regional system that would reside on one shared server, letting towns split the costs. And it would create an intercity WAN to let members share other common applications, as well. Libraries will be interconnected via the WAN, sharing resources and network costs.

The group also hopes to create a public safety network using 700 MHz wireless spectrum (and the fiber backbone). And it will build a microwave network for regional hurricane shelters, mindful of one of the lessons of Hurricane Katrina: Microwave antennas can quickly and easily be rebuilt if disabled by weather.

Gallagher believes a common fiber network could give users 100 times the bandwidth for a fourth the price.

Projects like OpenCape are sprouting up in response to not only end-user needs, but the promise of stimulus funds. Oregon's Morrow County has a 1500-mile rural network built with Wi-Fi and fiber it hopes to expand with other counties. Virginia's Franklin County partnered with a local wireless ISP to build a countywide WiMAX network. Oklahoma City used its Wi-Fi network to create an array of 42 weather stations that collect data on tornados, and the city expects to see an accompanying economic benefit, as researchers from around the world come to view the system. Hospitals also make use of county and municipal fiber networks to exchange video and other rich content with smaller facilities in neighboring areas. And police can use video surveillance to get visuals of a scene before they arrive. Some, like the city of Santa Monica, Calif., streamline construction and cut costs by pairing network deployment with existing public works projects such as street resurfacing or sewer line construction. And many of the groups leading these projects are considering open-access middle-mile networks.

“The thought is you get that middle mile out into those communities via as many possible partnerships and use cases as you can, converge that network, and you get the best bang for your dollar,” McCamley said.

Though many of these groups are forming at the county level, Cape Cod, like much of New England, doesn't have the kind of large counties found across most of America, and so it had to define its own geographic region to get the necessary economies of scale.

Some municipalities bowed out of the broadband stimulus contest once they saw details of federal preference for projects in unserved or underserved areas. Despite having pockets of need in downtown areas, many cities simply have too much broadband to qualify, underscoring the program's rural focus and further empowering counties and states.

Because the federal stimulus process favors large projects, many local- and county-level applicants have folded their efforts into state-level proposals. Missouri, for example, is partnering with various public and private entities (including Big River Telephone Company) to present its own proposal. States do play a unique role in the process: They help the feds map broadband coverage; they have the ability to essentially recommend proposals; and stimulus rules require a minimum of one award to be given to each state. In addition, the hurried pace of the stimulus process is pushing many applicants toward their state governments.

“There's so little time … it's rolling to states almost by default,” said Craig Settles, a consultant with Successful.com, who also helps stimulus applicants.

Not everyone is conceding to states, however. Mt. Carroll, Ill., for example, believes it can accomplish its goals more cheaply by going it alone. Many applicants know that trying to squeeze their plans along with those of other communities under one umbrella may leave them crowded with bureaucracy and struggling to find consensus.

The details of the stimulus rules has also caused a shift toward favoring public/private partnerships.

“When the initial bill was passed, the private sector was at the bottom of the list,” Settles said. “It started with cities and regional entities then nonprofits. From that perspective, you'd say, ‘I better partner with local folks.’ Then you see the [Notice of Funding Availability]; it flipped everything on its head. The public sector is still on top, but the questions and requirements are weighted toward a telecom or [WISP].”

Service providers not only have an important role to play in helping build the last mile, their expertise is needed in tying together services such as telemedicine and public safety over shared networks in a secure, efficient manner.

And, of course, there's another reason many cities, counties and states are partnering with private companies. “Most state agencies and local governments don't like to own things,” McCamley said.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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