Viewpoints

Community broadband strategies in the Trump era

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By Craig Settles

In the fall, Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp in Washington” of the lobbyists who feed on policymakers in our nations capital. For a fleeting moment, community broadband advocates were buoyed by populist rhetoric. Then reality sets in as the populist tapped Jeffrey Eisenach, a Verizon lobbyist, to head the team helping to pick staff members at the Federal Communications Commission.

So what’s next for advocates who see community broadband has one effective tool for forcing competition among providers? City and county officials need to use December for intensive strategic planning and forming partnerships with co-ops and private sector allies.


Align your community with co-ops

Many electric and other co-ops have had decades of delivering services and maintaining solid reputations with the community. Communities can learn from co-ops’ success dealing with state legislatures.

New Mexico used to prevent co-ops from providing broadband services. Kit Carson Electric Cooperative CEO Luis Reyes, Jr., began a systematic campaign of building local political support that was rolled up into state political support. “We started with educating elected officials at local levels. Not just mayors and city council, but we educated anyone who ran for elected office who would benefit by having better broadband.” Kit Carson leveraged local officials into a force within the legislature that eventually ended the prohibition.

Elected officials can combine forces co-ops lobby legislature. Some states with restrictions on public-own networks might improve broadband policy if a combine force lobbied effectively. In other states, these forces might persuade legislators to substitute less restrictive laws to offset draconian laws.

In the Civil War movies, the cavalry would come charging over the hill to save some unfortunate souls from impending doom. The cavalry had to protect an advancing army’s flanks and also strike out as an attacking force in its own right. The co-ops can be communities’ cavalry to protect their flanks as they battle for legislature support, and on their own the co-op cavalry can build out broadband infrastructure.
 

Tell Mikey it was only business

Businesses are the lifeblood of many communities and broadband is the way to keep that blood flowing. Businesses often are a network’s first and most devout customers, providing financial reinforcement.

State legislators have high regard for business interests in their districts. Although incumbent lobbyists have significant clout in the statehouses, any strategy to win over legislators will be strengthened by having local business in the room. As much as AT&T or Verizon have money to burn lobbying politicians, local businesses still have money Plus they influence voters.

But more then businesses as a channel to influence state politicians, communities need to partner with local and regional private companies. Reviewing partnerships between municipalities or public utilities and private-sector companies over the last 10-to-15 years could teach us a lot of valuable lessons.

One key lesson is that the “private sector” is more than ISPs and telecom companies. “We have to make sure we coax people to consider wide range of options” says Deb Socia, Executive Director of Next Century Cities. “Look for a partnerships that reflects the various factors that make a community unique.”

In Steuben County, Indiana the community foundation raised a tens of thousands of dollars from local businesses for the public network. The City of Fredrickson, in Canada formed a co-op with 13 local businesses to fund their initial network buildout. In San Leandro, California, a local tech company’s CEO built fiber infrastructure to deliver a gigabit, then partnered with the city to expand the network. As the surging wave of gigabit initiative builds, expect to see a corresponding increase in creative public private partnerships. 

 

Craig Settles assists communities with developing their broadband business and marketing plans, and help communities raise money for broadband projects. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) and visit his website: www.cjspeaks.com

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