Stirring the Pot: balancing the business case with equity considerations

Originally posted in Blandin eNews

The toughest decisions that rural places have often come early in the broadband discussion process.  They are not technical questions, but rather policy choices around balancing the business case with equity considerations.  Sometimes these decisions are made with little or no discussion or even recognition of the long term impact.

The first decision is: “Are we determined to provide everyone in our area with quality broadband services?  If the answer is “yes”, the next decision is “Will everyone have the same level of service?” and finally deciding, “How soon?”  These decisions are generally based on the average cost per passing or service connection.  Where costs in town are somewhere in the $3000 per household range, the cost per rural household can be over $10,000.

When public good and economic development are the primary objectives and the local leadership is deeply committed to broadband, decision-makers are more likely to push for fast and widespread network deployment.  This is best illustrated in places like Rock and Swift Counties where leaders made decisions to get new fiber connectivity to all unserved areas fast.  The RS Fiber project built fiber to the cities and deployed rural wireless services with plans to deploy ubiquitous fiber to the farm.  Pope County stimulated countywide wireless deployment for immediate broadband improvement.

The alternative is to consider partial solutions and expand broadband in an opportunistic fashion.  We see this strategy as either pure private sector development or sometimes supported by public-private partnerships.  Areas around lakes or golf courses, clusters of homes around country crossroads, and homes and businesses along existing fiber routes are the most likely areas most likely to see this deployment.  While this progress can be celebrated by those newly served, the remaining unserved areas become less and less attractive as the cost per passing skyrockets and the low ROI discourages both private and public sector funders.

I strongly encourage community broadband leaders to have this discussion early in the process with key leaders as you determine your strategies.  Quick easy wins based on partial deployment can be welcome, but may leave the most financially challenging parts of your community permanently behind.  Is that OK?

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