Greg Richardson on the role of cities in 2006: their impact on media and communications

As we move into 2006, an important transition is happening in the municipal broadband movement. In addition to 2006 being the “prove it to me” year where we see large-scale deployments and begin to measure their success against the plans developed in 2005, it’s also a year in which the impact of these initiatives starts to be felt on the As we move into 2006, an important transition is happening in the municipal broadband movement. In addition to 2006 being the “prove it to me” year where we see large-scale deployments and begin to measure their success against the plans developed in 2005, it’s also a year in which the impact of these initiatives starts to be felt on the broader communications and media industries.

Many of the early cities who embarked on municipal broadband initiatives did so for straightforward and mostly internal reasons; to improve the economic and social well-being of their communities. Now, cities are realizing that their actions are having an impact beyond their own city limits, into the huge, complex markets for communications and media. From the perspective of the incumbents who’ve opposed their involvement, I believe they’ve known for some time that “unfair competition” in a few markets was not the real threat to their business, but the grass-roots policy setting that cities were doing (unknowingly and unintentionally in many cases) was much more profound and disruptive.

So, what grass-roots policy setting are we talking about, and what evidence is there that it’s actually happening? Well, here are a few examples:

– Universal Service: cities are mandating (typically in an RFP for a private-sector partner or supplier) that municipal broadband networks be universally-available throughout the community. The existence of elected officials in a community, whether at-large or district-based, creates a natural insurance policy to protect against redlining.

– Open Access: cities are mandating that new broadband facilities not be monopolized by a single retail provider, recognizing that competition for retail services and consumer choice matter. This manifests itself in “wholesale” requirements for the transport layer of the network.

– Network Neutrality: with all the intense debate resulting from recent phone company threats to charge content/service providers and create what some have referred to as “a two-tiered Internet”, cities again are responding by mandating that their chosen partner not employ those tactics.

– Protection of Consumer Privacy: cities also realize that with the emergence of innovative business models where the value and return on investment may shift from access fees to other areas, protections need to be put in place to make sure consumer privacy is not abused in order to “prop up” these new models.

As cities recognize the importance of this new role, they find new pressures are put on them. Public Sector CIOs are faced with a dual-role; that of managing the internal IT infrastructure to keep the city running (their traditional internal role) and promoting the use of technology for community benefit (their new external role). And they’re faced with a need for new expertise in areas like telecommunications law/policy, regulatory issues, etc.

So, what can cities do going into 2006 to prepare for these new pressures? Well, a useful first step is to develop an explicit communications policy to guide their municipal broadband initiatives. Formal, written policies like the ones noted above will be critical for cities to make downstream decisions about the business model they adopt, the vehicle they use to solicit partnerships and the requirements they define in whatever vehicle they use.

And finally, the proven success or failure of these policies in improving competition, lowering prices and improving consumer choice within the cities/markets where they’re adopted will be critical to influence the “bargaining” that will happen as the inevitable national telecom reform bill gets hammered out over the next couple of years. Needless to say, those are very high stakes.

[This article appeared on Greg Richardson’s weblog.]
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About the author


Greg Richardson is the founder and President of Civitium LLC, a consulting firm focused on the concept of digital communities. Civitium is the advisor to Philadelphia, Miami Beach, Portland (Oregon), San Francisco, Houston, New Haven (Connecticut), Atlanta, Vancouver and Winston-Salem (North Carolina). Prior to founding Civitium, Greg was the Wireless Consulting Director for Siemens in the US, where he led the wireless broadband consulting engagement for Houston County, Georgia, which was co-sponsored by Intel, Siemens, and Alvarion. Prior to Siemens, Greg was a founder and the VP of Professional Services for Wireless Knowledge, a pioneering joint venture between Microsoft and QUALCOMM. He is also an author of numerous publications and a regular speaker at wireless broadband industry events. He maintains a weblog at www.civitium.com/weblog.