National Broadband Policies: Brought to You by Cities

This year, with upcoming decisions on mergers, auctions and open Internet rules, the FCC will dominate broadband deployment headlines. Yet when it comes to broadband’s ability to spur economic growth and achieve social progress, cities may turn out to be the most significant public entities in 2015.

Across all of broadband’s key policy components, local policies have a clear role and the greatest opportunity for innovative thinking.

Consider that all national broadband plans—whether in the United States or over 100 other countries—boil down to four core strategies:

  • Use spectrum more efficiently
  • Drive future-ready fiber optics deeper into the networks
  • Build and use broadband-enabled applications to improve delivery of public services, and
  • Get everyone on the network

Each nation faces different tactical challenges addressing those strategies, but the components are the same. Yet without cities and their local plans, implementing national policies would be impossible.

The economics of wireless networks are driven by international standards, so national institutions are best positioned to address spectrum allocation issues. Nonetheless, cities affect mobile services in many ways, from the availability of cell towers to improving the quality of Wi-Fi through broader fiber deployment. Most mobile communications travel over wired networks at some point so the better the wired network, the better the mobile service.

Construction costs are a huge barrier to greater fiber deployment—and here cities are the lead public actor. Rights of way, permitting, pole access, building access, build-out requirements and other factors all directly impact planning and investment. Smart local policies, such as requiring conduit or fiber installation during road construction, can reduce deployment costs by 90 percent while adding less than 1 percent to total project cost and minimizing neighborhood disruption. Further, as we have seen with Google Fiber, AT&T Gigapower, CenturyLink and smaller players, new city policies are driving fiber upgrades across the country.

Local governments also lead on public services that will rely on broadband quality. While the federal government plays a role in education, health care, social services and public safety, local efforts deliver the lion’s share of these services. Local policies will determine the speed by which we make these services more personalized, accountable and effective.

Finally, when it comes to broadband subscribers, households and business predominantly locate in cities and metropolitan areas. That means adoption concerns, including its perceived relevance by potential subscribers, will play out in urban and suburban communities across the country. Critically, with under-adopting communities often those most dependent on local services, transforming the delivery of public services to a digital platform could turn out to be a significant driver of adoption.

Further, it’s advantageous that the current FCC chairman has been thoughtful in analyzing the challenges we face, including how some states have hamstrung cities seeking better broadband.

Still, as cities increasingly recognize (as demonstrated by next week’s Gigabit Summit), they neither can nor should wait for federal policies to accelerate broadband leadership. And all should recognize that while the national government may draft a national broadband plan, delivering on its promise depends on actions of local governments.