The city of Opelika, Alabama has owned its own power utility for more than 100 years, which has translated into it being a low-cost provider of electricity. But one thing the area did not have was a next generation dynamic broadband communications infrastructure designed specifically to meet the demanding requirements of current and future needs as it looks to enhance its utility services.
This changed in 2008 when the city started to look at ways to improve its energy management capabilities and made them consider the idea of a municipal broadband strategy.
“It became clear that the capacity of fiber is such that we needed to fully utilize it with video, ultra-high-speed internet and television service,” said Opelika mayor Gary Fuller in a recent GridTalk article, Committing to the Citizens: Opelika’s Broadband Game-Changer. “So we did a feasibility study in 2009 and determined that it was possible. We started building a couple of years ago, resulting in 425 miles of fiber carrying triple play across the city today.”
The advantages of municipal broadband have been great for the city, and they include much faster Internet connectivity, a more enticing climate for businesses and young professionals, better ability to connect local hospitals with larger and more specialized healthcare facilities, and bridging the digital divide through universal Internet access.
The city also has benefited from the added customer service that comes from having broadband run by the city, according to the mayor.
“I recently had a friend tell me that he called the help desk at OPS on Sunday saying that he had lost the sound on the HD channel for Fox NFL football,” noted the mayor. “She directed him to the SD channel and said that if he would check back in about 10 minutes it should be repaired, and sure enough that happened. He told me that the best thing about the experience was that they answered on the second ring. They solved the problem quickly, and also there’s a comfort factor when the person you’re talking to could be your neighbor.”
Fiber to the home (FTTH) broadband projects such as that undertaken by Opelika can serve as a model for communities looking to better their quality of life and support new business development.
“If a community owns and operators an electric utility, it will have several advantages,” noted Jim Baller, president of Baller Herbst Law Group, in a related GridTalk article.
Source: Alcatel-Lucent (News - Alert) GridTalk
“It will be able to leverage its need for high-capacity communications to run its core operations, including advances in smart grid technology, in metering and in sophisticated uses of the network. It will have at least a couple of potential anchor tenants – the utility itself and the local government — and possibly also the school system and other institutions, such as hospitals and airports.”
Communities need to pay attention to regulatory and other hurdles, however.
First, there might be authority issues.
“Approximately 20 states in the U.S. have incumbent-driven laws that impose restrictions of some kind. For example, some states have flat prohibitions on some kinds of services. Some states prohibit cross-subsidization and require public entities to hold a referendum, create an enterprise fund for communications services, and/or impute into their rates the taxes and other costs that a private entity would incur.”
Communities also need to factor in organizational and other development issues.
“Once you get past the authority issues, you must address the legal issues that surround the organization and deployment of your project,” Baller added.
These range from routine registration and reporting requirements to the more complex issues posed by the need to choose the right kind of business organization, environmental issues, access to additional infrastructure, access to video programming and other content, access to customers (particularly in multi-tenant environments), and project finance, among others.
Then there are federal and state compliance issues.
“Broadband Internet access is generally unregulated at either the federal or state level, while telecommunications and cable services are usually subject to a patchwork of federal, state or local requirements,” noted Baller. “Depending on the service, there may be rules governing interconnection, collocation, privacy, equal employment opportunity, access for disabled Americans, universal service obligations, and other issues.”
But if these factors are considered, municipal broadband projects can be a big win for many communities.
“We now have hungry communities across the country seeking to take advantage of the opportunities that high-capacity networks can give them, and there are a variety of ways in which communities are trying to build or acquire such networks,” Baller noted. “High-capacity broadband networks are increasingly becoming today what electric networks were a century ago — a critical platform and a driver for just about everything that we’re going to be doing at work, at home or at play.”
Edited by Peter Bernstein