Leasing Dead Air to Drive Municipal Broadband

Building an Internet service provider has three main components.

  1. A robust connection to the internet, scalable and capable of supporting all users
  2. The transport network to get the data to the end-user
  3. A way to connect the end-user to the network.

The first part is easy enough to obtain: call a carrier, get a circuit, and plug it into a rack of equipment the provides network services and functionality. Just like that, you are online.

The third part can be pretty simple too. As connection devices have been highly commoditized. Whether it’s a cable modem, a wireless device to connect to a network or even an Ethernet cable, getting from the network into the end-users home or office may be tricky, but isn’t usually a difficult task.

It’s that second part that really seems to make all the difference: a transport network.

It’s all about the transport network

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No matter if it’s electrical copper infrastructure, optical fiber networking, licensed or unlicensed microwave including point to multi point & the newfangled 5G, The transport network is the key. That’s the part the big providers invest a ton of money into connect as many people as they can. That’s the part that wireless Internet service providers have to negotiate tower rights on; everything from grain silos to 1500 foot towers. That’s also a part where relationships can be made to help deliver services quicker, better, faster, and cheaper.

The problem is, usually you don’t have a large cable operator or telephone company that’s willing to let you build a start up business using the infrastructure they’ve spent billions of dollars on to make money. You can have a great connection to a carrier, commoditized end user equipment, but that transport network sitting right in the middle is what will make or break your company.

Leveraging current city assets

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A few years ago the mayor of our small community in McAllen Texas posed the question to our group of city leaders, “How can we leverage our current existing assets to maximize our investments in infrastructure and get every penny we can out of what we already have?” The room was completely silent. And it seems like it’s been silent to this day.

Leasing dark fiber and in-ground assets has always been up at the top of the list of ways to maximize technology investments and infrastructure for municipalities. It seems like part of the problem there is that there aren’t a lot of organizations that can take advantage of dark fiber, So you’re definitely limited on the amount of potential adopters. And since dark fiber is leased on a per mile, per strand, or combination of the two structure, you may have people that need it, but only for short distance.

As wireless technology has started to move more into the main stream over the last decade with things like point to multi-point in 5 GHz and now through higher frequency offerings like the 60GHz technology out there, there seems to be a new asset that municipalities are deploying but not leveraging. It makes a great use case to deploy multi-point microwave to connect streetlight controllers, video cameras, disparate city parks and buildings, and lift stations. But with the small amount of capacity used on these large coverage networks, it seems that there is some dead air that could be used to help the community, realize a greater return on the asset, and drive competitiveness and innovation.

Open the airwaves

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The concept is pretty simple: allow third-party private partners the ability to use city wide and city provided wireless infrastructure as a transport network for their Internet service provider.

This isn’t a new concept. It has worked incredibly well in deployments across the globe that lack traditional infrastructure. So why haven’t we done this in the United States? Why haven’t cities stepped up to allow their communities to be innovative and competitive? What’s stopping them? I would think that those are normally be rhetorical questions, but I really don’t have the answers.

Technically, it’s simple.

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From a technical standpoint, it would be pretty simple: Broadcast a network name, or SSID, of the partner across all radio faces of the point to multi-point network in the community. Tag that with a specific VLAN and back haul that VLAN across the city infrastructure to a single point, like City Hall. The provider is then responsible for bringing a circuit in to City Hall that they pay for and maintain, and then they cross-connect into the city’s network to offload the traffic from that VLAN onto their service provider network.

Politically, not so much

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The political side would be a little different: how do you approve a service provider? What criteria would they have to meet in order to do business with the city? How can they show that what they will be offering is a benefit to the community? Are they capable of providing the customer support, if any is required? How many operators do you limit it to in order to provide competition among each other?

Then, obviously there’s the whole city IT infrastructure department who is going to have their two cents. More so than not I would imagine, this is going to be one of those bottlenecks that someone sitting in a comfy chair is going to push to the other side of the desk for fear that they don’t look bad.

It’s not that it can’t be done, it’s not that it wouldn’t benefit the community, it’s not that it would make the city a better place, it’s that you have one or two individuals that are too scared to try something new because it will cost them a job, votes, or a seat at the table. That’s usually how this works. Great concept, great idea, complete visibility, infrastructure already in place, benefit to the taxpayer, all trumped by a re-election year.

So how would you get started?

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First make sure you have a team of commissioners, a city manager, city IT and a mayor that are on board. Don’t waste time unless the team is ready to do this.

Second, inventory the microwave devices that you currently have in your city.

Third, identify locations and assets across your municipality that could be leveraged by a wireless Internet service provider such as tall buildings, water towers, radio communications towers, etc.

Fourth, start to look at what your city could do if you made deeper investments in wireless communications. Street lights, IOT, sensors, video cameras, security, call boxes, etc. If you have the ability to put a device anywhere in the city that would feed data back to your network, what would that device be, what could you do with it, and how would that change your day-to-day operations?

Fifth, realize that if you did make those deeper investments in wireless communications, imagine the problems that would solve for you, the opportunities it would open up for you, and the opportunities that could be created to do things like close the digital divide in your community and promote broadband equity. Solve multiple tasks with minimal effort, that’s the key.

One size may fit all

I think that this could be something that would definitely work in some communities, but not in all. I would challenge you to look into your city and see if you think this may work.

There’s help out there

If it does and you need help, please feel free to reach out. I would love to see more public-private partnerships like this taking place across the United States to help get us all connected, keep us connected, and do so while helping local business thrive.

Inspiration to Do Great Things

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