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Partnership Pitfalls and Best Practices That Municipalities Should Know

Industry experts detailed best practices for approaching public-private partnerships at Mountain Connect 2022.

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Photo of Valerie Wimer and Jeff Brown, director of global field marketing at Calix by Jericho Casper

KEYSTONE, Colo., June 9, 2022 – With many forthcoming federal broadband funding opportunities set to include recipient applicants pursuing public-private partnerships, the explosion of public entities moving into the broadband space is expected to continue, according to observers.

Industry experts convened at the Mountain Connect 2022 conference last month advised prospective grant applicants on new partnership models emerging in the current industry environment to foster a discussion on how different business models affect the success rates of municipal networks.

In her years of consulting experience, Valerie Wimer, vice president of business development for consulting firm JSI, said she has found that partnerships in which the municipality builds the network and then partners with a private network operator appear to have the most success. Additionally, three-way partnerships between electric utilities, local providers, and municipalities have proven to work well.

The panelists warned, however, of potential pitfalls associated with open access networks – in which one network is used by multiple internet service providers – saying that, in practice, there can be some difficulties attracting service providers to the network, particularly in rural areas.

Lit fiber over dark fiber

Wimer further advised that municipalities should light their fiber networks and provide capacity to service providers, rather than set up dark fiber networks and have providers light the network themselves. Though lit fiber networks require the municipality to invest more upfront than dark fiber networks, lit fiber tends to be more prosperous than dark fiber. According to Wilmer, this is because with lit fiber, service providers can simply contact the municipality to purchase network capacity on a per customer basis, to service end-users.

Municipalities scoping out public-private partnerships should also be aware that the technology they choose for the network holds the potential to impact the success of the network.

For example, municipalities that choose to run coaxial cable or radio frequency technology should be aware that these technologies require much more ongoing maintenance than technologies with lower operational expenses, such as fiber. In Wilmer’s experience, the fewer employees necessary for the municipality to have to keep the network running, the easier it is for the municipality to handle.

Wilmer advised municipalities and counties pursuing public-private partnerships to plan on the process taking up to 18 months.

Contributing Reporter Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide and has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband.

Open Access

Financing Mechanisms for Community Broadband, Panel 3 at Digital Infrastructure Investment

Panel 3 video. Join the Broadband Breakfast Club to watch the full-length videos from Digital Infrastructure Investment.

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Video from Panel 3 at Digital Infrastructure Investment: Kim McKinley, Chief Marketing Officer, UTOPIA Fiber, Jeff Christensen, President & CEO, EntryPoint Networks, Jane Coffin, Chief Community Officer, Connect Humanity, Robert Wack, former Westminster Common Council President and leader of the Open Access Citywide Fiber Network Initiative, and moderated by Christopher Mitchell, Director, Community Broadband Networks, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

For a free article summarizing the event, see Communities Need Governance Seat on Broadband Builds, Conference Hears: Communities need to be involved in decision-making when it comes to broadband builds, Broadband Breakfast, November 17, 2022

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Fiber Providers Need to Go Beyond Speed for Differentiation, Consultant Says

40 percent are unsure of their home internet speeds, said Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research.

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Photo of Jonathan Chaplin, managing partner at New Street Research

WASHINGTON, November 9, 2022 – Despite fiber’s fast broadband speeds, providers must innovate and offer other benefits – like content bundling – to maintain market share as customers increasingly make purchasing decisions based on non-speed factors, argued Jonathan Chaplin, managing partner at New Street Research, a telecommunications and technology research firm.

“Our message to the cable industry is: Stop marketing on speed, put everybody on the gigabit tier, and start differentiating on everything else,” Chaplin said at a Fiber Broadband Association event Wednesday.

Chaplin also urged fiber providers to prepare to enter the wireless market, saying that wireless and broadband will soon “converge into one marketplace.

“It’s not a major differentiator or driver of consumers’ decisions today, but you need to start working on this as a product category to be ready for it by the time it [is],” he added.

And raw speed won’t be enough to attract customers, Chaplin argued. Although consumers say speed and price are the two top factors when considering internet plans, he said, his research shows that 40 percent are unsure of their home internet speeds.

Typical speeds have greatly increased in recent years, and Chaplin said faster service provides no perceptible benefit to most customers once certain speeds are reached. According to his data, “Increases in speed (above 200 Mbps) really have no impact on the satisfaction of a household with their broadband provider.”

Fixed-wireless uptake shows speed isn’t always king

The rise of fixed-wireless providers, who usually don’t advertise on speed, further demonstrates that consumers are willing to make purchase decisions on other factors, Chaplin argued. In fact, his research shows that many new fixed-wireless customers did not make the switch due to speed complaints.

“If you’re in the fiber business, you’re in a strong position. You’ve got a product that wins in the market today, but you cannot afford to be complacent,” Chaplin said. “The battleground for consumers is going to shift and you need to be ready for shift when it comes,” he added.

The Federal Communications Commission is considering a proposal to mandate “broadband nutrition labels,” which proponents say would help consumers understand the details of their internet plans. Researchers at the TPRC 2022 conference in September suggested that such labels should include “interpretive” data to explain the real-world implications of technical metrics. TPRC speakers also echoed Chaplin’s claim increased speeds do not necessarily correlate with higher customer satisfaction rates.

Industry players differ on substantive policy points surrounding the proposal, however, including whether labels should be mandatorily included on month internet bills.

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Fiber

COVID Funds Ensuring NTIA Broadband Infrastructure Funding Adequate: Conexon Executive

‘The way you close the digital divide is you build fiber to every single rural home,’ Jonathan Chambers said.

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Photo of Jonathan Chambers, partner at Conexon

WASHINGTON, October 17, 2022 – Millions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, which are currently being deployed by states to extend broadband networks, is helping ensure that new broadband money allocated from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act will be sufficient to extend fiber to all homes in America, said a telecom executive on a Fiber Broadband Association web event Wednesday.

Since many states are using ARPA funding to deploy new networks, fewer than ten million locations will “be left for BEAD after ARPA,” said Jonathan Chambers, partner at rural internet service provider co-op Conexon, referring to the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Since the American Rescue Plan became law in March 2021, federal programs – including the Capital Projects Fund and the Emergency Connectivity Program – and state governments have put tens of billions of ARPA-appropriated dollars towards broadband various projects.

Chambers, whose company builds fiber networks and works primarily with rural electric cooperatives, said he wants to refute the arguments of fiber skeptics by going “to the hardest-to-serve, poorest places in the country and demonstrate you can build fiber there,” saying the company is working to build a fiber network to every home and business in East Carrol Parish, Louisiana.

An argument against fiber builds in rural areas has been the expense required to do so.

The BEAD program will dispense block grants to the states based on relative need. States will issue subgrants for broadband infrastructure and other projects. Pro-fiber advocates like Chambers and FBA President Gary Bolton support using these funds primarily for fiber deployments.

“The way you close the digital divide is you build fiber to every single rural home,” Chambers said.

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