Digitally Connected Community Guide tapped for national workshop

The University of Missouri System Broadband Initiative team was tapped to help train extension professionals to be effective partners in closing their state’s digital divide. The May 3–5 workshop in St. Louis equipped participants from 11 states with training and tools based on the UM System’s Digitally Connected Community Guide model to help close critical broadband access and adoption gaps that impact quality of life and economic recovery. 

The National Digital Extension Education Team (NDEET), headed by Rachel Welborn, associate director of the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State, asked UM to provide a train-the trainer-model program around the UM model.  

“This collaborative national training opportunity strengthens the impact of broadband expansion across rural America and other areas of need by bringing together Extension professionals as co-learners and community catalysts,” said Alison Copeland, UM System deputy chief engagement officer. “It’s an honor that the Digitally Connected Community Guide was selected by NDEET to train Extension colleagues across the nation.”

The Guide, an online curriculum produced by the UM System Broadband Initiative, offers tools and resources — and a step-by-step process — to engage local partners and residents in bringing high-speed internet to unserved Missouri communities; improve adoption rates and digital literacy; and increase the use of internet-based technologies and applications to improve health, education, and economic opportunities for all. 

More information about the Digitally Connected Community Guide is available.

Missouri House Special Interim Committee on Broadband Development Issues Its Final Report

The Missouri House Special Interim Committee on Broadband Development has issued its final report and recommendations for improving access to broadband and broadband applications. The Committee was appointed last year by House Speaker Rob Vescovo, and included Representatives Louis Riggs (Chair), Cyndi Buchheit-Courtway, Bishop Davidson, Travis Fitzwater, Jay Mosely, Wes Rogers, and Travis Smith.

The Report summarizes findings from at least 11 public meetings and testimony from over 40 witnesses; together with appendices and transcripts, it is more than 500 pages in length. The Report addresses issues of internet access, connection speed, and affordability, as well as the need for progress to improve adoption of internet-based applications for online education, telehealth, precision agriculture, workforce development, and entrepreneurship.

While acknowledging that the state has made some progress over the past several years – moving up from 41st to 32nd in the FCC state ranking for broadband access, the Committee concluded that “there is still a tremendous amount of work to do in order to move Missouri from below the middle of the pack into the Top 10 states in the country.” To illustrate the point, the Report noted that Missouri ranks 44 out of 50 states in home use of fixed broadband and 15th in the nation for households with no internet access at all.

Several recommendations were made to improve on these statistics, including the creation of legislative committees in the Missouri House and Senate dedicated exclusively to broadband expansion and oversight, along with a “Broadband Development Council” to enhance stakeholder engagement, ensure accountability and provide meaningful public oversight. As part of this effort the Committee called for a publicly accessible internet testing and mapping resource that would show actual internet connection speeds in real-time.

More funding for the Missouri Broadband Office within the Department of Economic Development was recommended to increase amounts available through the state’s broadband infrastructure matching grant program over the next three years and to provide additional staff to improve oversight of internet providers that participate in this program. The Committee recommended increasing connectivity speeds in the state’s definition of broadband, so that public funding would be available in areas lacking connectivity at speeds of at least 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload and modifying the definition so that those standards automatically adjust in conjunction with future increases in the federal standard. At the same time, the Committee acknowledged that some public funding support should be available for connection speeds at lower levels for extremely remote last-mile locations, until technological advances permit these to be phased out.

Finally, the Report recommended legislation to encourage and streamline deployment of broadband, including the use of government-owned structures and broadband assets to expand service to homes and businesses through participation in public-private partnerships. Specific recommendations included overhaul of right-of-way access, streamlining resolution of utility make-ready and pole attachment cost disputes, and the institution of “Dig Once” policies to require more efficient and cost-effective installation of broadband infrastructure.

Several of these recommendations appear to be included in legislation proposed in  the Missouri General Assembly this session. For example, Senate Bill 981 changes the definition of broadband and Senate Bill 990 addresses part of the make ready and pole replacement cost issue.

Closing the Digital Divide: Houston, Missouri Finds a Solution

Don Tottingham, longtime Mayor of Houston, Missouri, loved his City and thought it was a great place to raise a family. But he also recognized it had a major infrastructure issue: its residents and most small businesses lacked an adequate, reliable, high-speed internet connection.

The Vision

Mind you, Houston, Missouri, a city of approximately 2100, located in the south-central part of the state, is not entirely without high-speed internet service. Some businesses and many schools, libraries and other public institutions had the money needed to fund special, high-speed internet connections, but upon investigation Houston public officials found that the commercial providers who offered this service to businesses in the City, could not make a “business case” for extending service to all the individual residences and small businesses in the City.

This situation may sound familiar to many small towns, subdivisions, and even some neighborhoods in larger cities. However, what is unusual is that Houston’s local officials decided to do something about the problem. They decided to build a fiberoptic internet network that will offer service to all residents and businesses in the City.

I spoke recently with Houston City Administrator, Scott Avery (via Zoom) to learn more about the City’s vision and lessons learned as the project has moved forward.

When we spoke, the City’s network was under construction:  an 18-mile fiberoptic cable “ring” around the community had been completed, internet access for the City’s new network with two separate providers had been secured, and work was underway on the second stage of a four-stage neighborhood build-out to homes and businesses throughout the City.

Service has been offered to residences and businesses in the completed sections of the City beginning in March 2021, and when the network is finally completed (expected by year-end), every home and business in the City will have the option of connecting to the internet at speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second!

Community Outreach – Meeting the Needs of the Community

Mayor Tottingham lost his battle with cancer in July 2019, but by that time the City had already hired an engineering firm to conduct an internet feasibility study. The results of that feasibility study and a key component, a community survey, became available at about the time the time Scott Avery came on board as City Administrator in September.

Scott noted two key findings of the community survey. First, 78% of respondents said they would subscribe to reliable internet service offered by the City. This of course was strong confirmation of public support for the City to move forward with municipal broadband. Second, the survey showed that the overwhelming concern for residents and businesses was to have reliable internet service– meaning service that was robust enough to allow them to connect online and have confidence that the connection would remain stable for as long as it was needed. This led the City to intentionally construct a network designed to be highly reliable and capable of expanding to meet both current and future needs of residents and businesses.

Scott observed that the community outreach effort was crucial not only for Houston’s leaders, but for any community that wants to address the lack of high-speed internet access and adoption. “We could sit here in city hall and guess all the time without actually understanding what services they want the City to provide.” He added, “Having the survey gives you a chance to ‘paint the picture’ to let folks know what you are doing.” and that “helped answer the questions Aldermen had when considering whether to make the investment.”

Houston’s project is closely tied to its municipal electric utility system. Funds from the electric system have financed the expansion; city employee linemen have been cross-trained to install and repair fiber; the fiber is mounted on City-owned poles; and billing and back-office administration are incorporated with those already used for the City’s electric, water, and sewer utilities. Once fully operational, the network is expected to deliver better utility and other government services to the community, as well as provide the City’s residents and businesses reliable high-speed internet. 

“In the Trenches” – Building a Fiber Network

In early 2020, based on the findings from the survey and the feasibility study, the City decided to move forward with a City-owned and operated internet network. It selected a contractor through a request for qualifications process, and secured contracts to connect the City’s network to the internet from two separate providers. Scott’s experience in emergency services, and the community’s concerns about reliability, led to the decision to have a second provider for the City’s network. By doing this, the City has redundant access to the internet, so that a service failure with one provider would not cause the City’s network to go down, as the other provider’s capacity alone was more than that needed to service the City’s users. The City also took advantage of favorable pricing to buy more capacity (bandwidth) from these providers than was strictly necessary based on the engineer’s design. The goal was to build a system that could easily grow to meet increases in demand or perhaps a new business such as a data center that might need much higher levels of bandwidth.

The City published pricing and service levels in 2020 before network construction began. It now offers a range of service options for households ranging from $30 a month for 25Mbps (upload and download) to $90 a month for gigabit level service (1000 Mbps). Business customer options range from $75 to $250 per month but provide the customer priority routing over the network.

When it created the various options and pricing, the City focused on two considerations. First, what was the minimum level of service citizens needed to do most household tasks such a streaming video and working or taking online classes from home. Even for individuals that select the lowest service level, their connections speeds should be sufficient for those purposes.  Second, the service is priced at a level sufficient to operate and maintain the City’s network over the long term, but with no expectation of making a profit. As Scott put it — “the goal, the focus, all along is that a single mom with four kids at home – trying to get them an opportunity that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and I think this fiber broadband and an online education opens doors for people in this community more than anything else because it attaches them to the outside world.”

With this amount of advance planning and help from outside experts, existing right-of-way, poles throughout the City to run fiberoptic cable, and a city staff experienced in operating other utilities, you might expect things would have gone relatively smoothly. Scott was quick to admit that wasn’t the case. “We started construction in March of 2020. I don’t know if you heard what happened in March of 2020, but there was a shut down from this thing called COVID.” As I laughed, he pointed to his graying hair and observed, “I had brown hair when we started this project.”

Joking aside, the COVID lockdown initially stopped and then slowed the progress on the project. Once things began to reopen, the City was faced with labor delays and shortages of fiberoptic cable and related equipment needed to construct the network. This problem is not unique to Houston, it has plagued even the largest internet providers throughout the United States. The City’s network build-out is now 14 months behind schedule, but in large part because City employees are now able to handle fiber installation even if the outside contractor is delayed, they are in a much better position to move forward to complete the build out. The City has also discovered a few “work arounds” to mitigate the supply chain issues. For example, it recently was able to fill a need for 65 “fiber dead-end connectors” by sourcing what was needed from several suppliers that could fill part, but not all, of the City’s order.

These delays also have reduced the number of subscribers from those initially projected, but the City believes this will be reversed once the entire network is complete and folks understand the value of service being offered. Noting the public’s problem with unreliable internet, Scott observed that the City’s new network has not suffered a service outage since it “went live” in some sections of the City in March.

Lessons Learned

A final list of “lessons learned” from Houston’s approach awaits completion and full operation of the new network. One lesson that Scott offered was the need to make certain that engineers and other outside advisors understand that municipal leaders, even those that lead a city’s IT department, likely do not “know what they don’t know” when it comes to designing and constructing an internet network. Open communication is critical to avoid unpleasant surprises for any community contemplating a broadband project. Other lessons he mentioned were more closely tied to the extraordinary challenges of the COVID pandemic. For example, the City’s solution to supply shortages previously described, and the need to develop effective strategies to keep the project moving forward even when contractors are stretched too thin and face severe labor shortages.

What seems equally clear is that any city or county undertaking a project like this needs to have a clear vision of its ultimate objective, a public mandate to move forward, and a tenacious innovative staff that remains calm and focused on the ultimate objective in the face of the unforeseen challenges and setbacks. Here Scott’s experience in emergency services likely was a huge plus for the City. As he put it – no matter how many problems come your way, at least you know nobody is going to die, and that certainly helps keep things in perspective. 

There is also one final “lesson” for other communities facing similar challenges of inadequate internet service that may not be as apparent:  Houston’s approach may not be appropriate or necessary to address the problem. Not every community will have the experience, leadership, and resources needed to construct and offer-high speed internet to every home and business as a municipal utility. Even in communities that do, the citizens may not want their city or county to take on this role.

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an appropriate role for local government to play in efforts to close the digital divide. Every city and county in the state has received federal funds to plan and pay for necessary broadband infrastructure. There are variety of contractual arrangements that local governments can use to encourage the expansion of privately-owned high-speed internet for unserved and underserved areas. However, public funds and public support for private internet expansion needs to have a public purpose — it needs to meet needs of the citizens of the community for more effective government, and real improvements to the health, education and economic well-being of the community. The first logical step in that process is to develop a comprehensive plan that identifies and meets the needs of the community.

Four Critical Questions Every Community Should Ask Before Providing Public Support for High-Speed Internet Infrastructure

Seemingly overnight communities around the country have realized that affordable, reliable, high-speed is more than a “nice thing to have” – it’s a necessity. The COVID pandemic exposed the risk of relying on stop-gap solutions such as smart phones, hot spots and obsolete DSL technologies. Public officials and local businesses are beginning to understand that hoping for a technological breakthrough to solve their digital connectivity problem is a poor plan for the future of their community. 

Just like the electric grid, every community, no matter how isolated needs to be connected to the “information grid.” 

This has given way to the sobering realization that, just like the electric grid, every residence and business in every community needs to be connected to the “information grid” — the network of fiber optic cable supplemented by various wired and wireless technologies that connects communities to outside world and to the 21st century technologies that rely on high-speed internet access to provide better health, education and economic outcomes for all. 

Some will continue to insist that this is a problem that only can be addressed through private, for-profit companies. Others will argue that an internet connection is so critical to everyday life that it is a “utility” and should be publicly owned and controlled, so that all individuals and business have a minimum level of internet service at a price they can afford. However, it’s likely neither of these extremes is the answer for most of neighborhoods and communities still waiting for adequate high-speed internet service. 

Instead, many local governments have instead turned to public-private partnerships to bridge the digital divide in their community. Public-Private Partnerships –- often referred to as “P3s” — are contractual agreements that allocate the “4Rs” – the roles, responsibilities, risks, and rewards — associated with the design, construction, maintenance, operation, and ownership of a modern high-speed internet network. 

P3s operate from the premise that local, State, and federal government can do some things well, while others are best handled by for-profit business and nonprofit organizations (NGOs). P3s dispense with political and ideological rhetoric, in favor of a finding a practical approach that recognizes that government, NGOs and business can create a better solution by working together for the common good. 

All P3 arrangements involve some degree of “risk sharing.” They operate from the premise that the best result is achieved when all stakeholders are motivated by the risk of failure – along with the anticipated rewards that accompany success.  For the most part businesses and most operating NGOs are familiar with these concepts and are comfortable balancing their appetite for success (profit) with their aversion for risk – the risk of failure. 

The same cannot be said for many local government “public partners.” Too often, public partners tend to assume that a public private partnership is a one-way street, where business and NGOs (the private partners) will assume all the risks, fulfill all the public partner’s objectives, and deliver and operate the project for the common good – just because someone calls the arrangement a “public private partnership.”  

This mindset can have disastrous consequences for the public partner (and the public at large). Just as there are many examples of successful P3s, there also are also many examples of P3’s that have failed, leaving the public partner (and its taxpayers) on the hook for the additional funds needed to provide the promised network.  

Does this mean that P3s are a bad choice for communities? Of course not, but it does mean that public entities contemplating a P3 arrangement to solve their digital connectivity problem need be aware that a P3 is simply a tool, and like all tools, it needs to be used properly. Of course, that means that no public partner should enter into a P3 without first obtaining legal and financial representation to represent the public’s interests.  But it also means that local government decision makers need to focus on 4 key questions that largely will determine how their P3 will be structured. 

Public entities contemplating a P3 arrangement to solve their digital connectivity problem need to focus on 4 key questions when structuring a P3.

Question 1 — Design and Construction:  

Which party – the public partner or a private partner is best able to design and construct an effective high-speed internet network for the community?  

Regardless of who will ultimately own, maintain, and operate the internet infrastructure once it is completed, a properly negotiated and documented P3 can assign responsibility for the design and construction of internet network to the private partner. Arrangements that do this are often called design-build contracts. A public partner using a design-build P3 would first go through a process to define its objectives for the network (for example, speed (throughput), reliability, expandability, etc.).  and leave to an expert private partner to determine how those objectives will be achieved.  

The process of decerning the core objectives for the network is critical. A properly negotiated design-build P3 can reduce and eliminate many of the risks associated with the design and construction, but in the end it only promises to achieve the results the public partner identified in the contract specifications. If those specifications are insufficient to meet the needs of the community, that is a risk assumed by the public partner.  

In addition, ideally, a design-build P3 should be set up as “fixed price contract” and payment should be required only when the network is completed, and all design specifications are satisfied. While this may seem somewhat obvious, there are several projects (both for internet infrastructure and other capital projects) where the public partner failed to follow this guidance, and instead agreed to make required to make “progress payments” – even if though the private partner’s work was incomplete. While such an arrangement may be appropriate in some special cases, it is critical that the public partner understand the risks associated with making payment for a network that has not been completed. 

Question 2 — Maintenance  

Which party – the public partner or the private partner should be responsible for maintaining the community’s internet network?  

Once a network is completed, a second question needs to be addressed: who will be responsible for maintaining it in working order. This really can be divided into two questions. First, which partner is responsible for replacing equipment that wears out, fails, or is that is damaged by weather or some other natural cause? Second, which partner is responsible for making certain the network does not become technologically obsolete: assuming responsibility for upgrading the equipment and associated software so that it continues to meet the evolving needs of individual and business users in the community?  

A high degree of technical knowledge about network design and industry trends are critical to meet these maintenance requirements. For that reason, it isn’t surprising that in many settings this responsibility will be assumed, at least in part, by a private partner, even if the public partner wants to own and operate the network. 

Maintenance for the network can be addressed in variety of ways. For example, a private partner might include a long-term warranty and extended service plan as part of a design-build P3, converting it P3 to a “design-build-maintain P3.  Concerns related to technological obsolescence might need to be combined with and made a part of a “maintenance and operation” P3.   

In either case, a threshold question for the public partner is whether it has the personnel and the expertise necessary to maintain the internet network. If not, then it must decide how to select a private partner to assume that responsibility. 

Question 3 — Operation 

Which party – the public partner or the private partner should be responsible for operating the internet network?  

Operating an internet network certainly requires a significant level of technical expertise to monitor network demand and data traffic (for example, how many folks are accessing the network and how much bandwidth are they using), but it also requires competency in handling more pedestrian issues, such as billing, customer relations, and marketing. This means that a partner handling network operation, needs to have resources available to address issues as complex as negotiating guaranteed access through a mid-mile or backbone provider, to helping a customer trouble-shoot a bad connection inside their home or business.  

For the public partner, the first question again is whether it has experience and personnel available that can address these issues. Logically, one might thing that a public partner that has extensive experience operating other utilities would be best equipped to assume responsibility for operating an internet network. But this may be an oversimplification. After all, the technologies involved in delivering water and sewer service to residents are quite different than those used to operate a high-speed internet network.  

 Question 4 — Ownership 

Which party – the public partner or the private partner should own the completed internet network?  

This might seem like the most important issue in any P3 arrangement, but usually it isn’t. Legal ownership often is not the critical factor in terms of achieving the practical objectives of the parties. For example, the right to use and control internet network assets or the responsibility for designing, constructing, maintaining, and operating the network can be assigned to a partner even though that partner doesn’t “own” the network.  

However, the “legal ownership” of portions of the network assets may have significant state law and tax implications, both for the public partner and the private partner. For example, there are a variety of public financial and tax incentives that can be provided to help make it possible for a private partner to go forward with the construction and operation of a high-speed network in the community, but the availability of these incentives may hinge on which partner has legal ownership of the assets. These issues are often best addressed by the public partner’s legal counsel and financial advisors.  

The Digitally Connected Community Guide 

Obviously, the issues associated with a P3 are complex.  No one approach will be right for every community, and clearly no community should commit public funds or enter into a P3 arrangement without expert legal and financial advice.  

Nevertheless, many communities need information and guidance as they work to understand and evaluate various potential P3 options. The Digitally Connected Community Guide is a facilitated program sponsored by MU Extension that can help communities and their stakeholders develop a workable proposal that uses a P3 to help their communities become “digitally connected.” To learn more about the program and how your community can participate — contact info@mobroadband.org.