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Community Broadband Providers Face Unique Challenges

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WASHINGTON, June 11, 2010 – Community broadband providers face unique challenges, said a group of experts Thursday at an event hosted by the New America Foundation.

Broadband is a local issue and members of the communications community shouldn’t lose sight of that, said author Craig Settles, who is also president of and co-director of Communities United for Broadband, in a speech just prior to the panel discussion.

While discussing the national implications of telecom policy, and advocating for a robust national approach, Settles also expressed skepticism that the issue could be easily resolved through federal action.

“It has become a national discussion at this point, followed by action policy and money,” Settles said. “Broadband is a local issue, and we can’t lose sight of the fact that it is all local, and regardless of what happens here in D.C., there are people in various communities, large, small and everything in between, and they have to live with these policies. What are some key things we need to do on the D.C. side, and on the local side?”

Settles also rejected the notion of focusing exclusively on access to particular varieties of technology as a panacea. He suggested that a more holistic approach was needed.

“We shouldn’t really focus on just wireless or just fiber, it is a multitude of technologies,” Settles said.

He offered a series of suggestions for improvement, starting with a renewed focus on what he saw as the neglected question of community needs.

Settles said it’s important to evaluate “needs assessment” of consumers.

“I think we have to understand this basic concept that is about meeting needs while you’re doing this. We should also be clear that this is not a discussion about access,” he said. “This may sound like sacrilege while we’re talking about broadband adoption, and people who don’t have access, but really, it’s not the access. What the issue is, what the needs are, are better education, better health care in places where people can’t get to a doctor.”

According to Settles, these needs for education and health care could only be provided adequately through the type of communications apparatus that broadband provides. Settles suggested viewing community broadband as a business venture so as to maximize the efficiency of community providers. He said community providers should assess their return on investment when it comes to addressing these issues.

This latter suggestion met with praise and some measure of resistance by the panel. Bryan Sivak, chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, gave qualified approval to the concept of ROI benchmarks for community providers. “While we might not need a dollar made on every dollar in payback, I do think we need a comment on how to get our investment back,” Sivak said.

More critical was Joanne Hovis, president of the Columbia Telecommunications Corporation. “I liked a lot of what Craig had to say, but treating what we do with community broadband as having to fend for itself like a business, to operate like a business, is not correct,” Hovis said. “Businesses operate by what the numbers are on financial statements. Governments operate by what the benefits are of those financial statements.”

Mytheos Holt recently graduated from Wesleyan University with a B.A. in Government and History, receiving high honors in Government. He served as a weekly columnist at the Wesleyan Argus, Wesleyan University's campus-wide newspaper, and founded the Wesleyan Witness political commentary magazine. He is originally from Big Sur, Calif., and currently resides in Washington, D.C.


  1. Just to make sure my comments about access not being the Holy Grail of broadband are not misconstrued, my point is that focusing on access alone is shortsighted. If access is all you see as the primary objective, you can throw any type of broadband into a community and say “here, you have access.” Or, if you put fiber, you tell the community you now have fast broadband. However, you enable people to meet their needs. What you have to plan for are the things people want to do with access. When you understand the community’s need, then you provide the right type of technology, the right support training programs, you develop the best partnerships, etc. You build for future needs, not just on what people can do today.

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