Many people have come to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) for advice on how to get started on an effort to improve Internet connectivity. This is a working document with some suggestions and places to get ideas. Please let us know if you have suggestions or additional comments by emailing us – firstname.lastname@example.org.
An increasing number of municipalities are investing in telecommunications infrastructure to serve public facilities, local businesses, and even residences (see our map here). The national cable and telephone companies are refusing to invest in communities because they effectively have a monopoly on Internet access locally. Most Americans are stuck choosing between slow DSL and expensive cable options.
Deploying a publicly owned telecommunications network is no small task. This Toolkit is designed to help your community ask the right questions to implement a connectivity improvement initiative. Each community is unique and the path you choose will also be one-of-a-kind but there steps common to every initiative.
Begin At The Beginning: Establish A Concrete and Viable Vision:
"A vision needs to identify the potential benefit(s), both quantitative and qualitative, and a reasonably concise assessment of the problem(s). A comment problem is a lack of local control over essential infrastructure. Gaining control over the infrastructure is one piece, but what will that allow the community to do? Hope is a valuable part of the vision. The community has to have faith that it can do better and find ways of bringing the community together to create (or maintain) a good place to live and work." – From the 2014 ILSR report, Santa Monica City Net: An Incremental Approach to Building A Fiber Optic Network
What are the problems you wish to solve in your community?
- Are you concentrating on improving access for business, households, or both?
- Does your community need more affordable access?
- Do you want more choices?
- Are you frustrated with the incumbents?
Determine what and where the needs are and clearly document them to share with community members.
Look at nearby municipalities and counties and see if they are working on developing a network. We maintain a list of the community networks built in the United States on our Community Broadband Map.
Review restrictions that your state may have in place regarding developing a municipal network. State statutes can sometimes dictate the business model, funding, or geographic area of your potential network.
Determine What You Have: Review Existing Community Assets
A number of communities already have fiber in place for other purposes. Managing traffic signals, monitoring wells, or connecting electrical substations are a few common municipal or county government uses of fiber. Sometimes, local government already has fiber to connect schools or public facilities. Before delving deep into the process, one should have an idea if any of these assets may exist in the community.
Community anchor institutions (CAIs) are entities found in many communities and used by a large segment of the population. They tend to be nonprofit or government facilities such as schools, colleges, libraries, social service entities, hospitals, and medical clinics. If CAIs are not already connected by a community network, how well are they served? Can they get the connections they need at an affordable price? If not, they should be part of the plan – connect them as anchor tenants of the network.
For example, check on whether your city has a municipal electric department or public power within the city or county. These institutions can be helpful assets in building a network because they often already have some fiber assets to manage the electrical grid, and are generally experienced in managing a business enterprise. A substantial majority of community-owned networks were built with the assistance of a municipal electric department. However, there are other models and possibilities for communities who do not have a public power utility.
Community broadband networks have been around since the 1990s and ILSR has collected many of their stories. MuniNetworks.org has hundreds of articles about local communities that have explored municipal networks solutions.
Look into the laws in your state: 19 states have passed laws that prevent or restrict municipal investment in telecommunications. There are similarities, but each one holds subtle but critical differences. If you live in a state with legislative barriers, encourage your state elected officials to take steps to remove them. Check out the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.
In-depth case studies are also available that dig into challenges, strategies, and methods used by communities that have launched municipal networks. Case studies that are available onMuniNetworks.org and ILSR.org include:
- Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks(Chattanooga, Tennessee; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Bristol, Virginia)
- All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access
- Santa Monica City Net: An Incremental Approach to Building A Fiber Optic Network
- Carolina’s Connected Community: Wilson Gives Green Light to Fast Internet
- Florida Fiber: How Martin County Saves Big With Gigabit Network
- Breaking the Broadband Monopoly: How Communities Are Building the Networks They Need
Understand the Indirect Benefits of building a community fiber network, which is where community ownership really separates itself from private ownership. We discuss it in Community Broadband Bits Episode 80.
Inform the Public and Build Support
Strong and vocal support by local leadership has been a broad theme for most successful networks. Local officials and government staff are sometimes limited in how they can build and express support; for example, they are generally unable to use public funds to combat misinformation campaigns from incumbent cable or phone companies prior to a referendum. This makes it all the more important for individual and institutional supporters of a community network to do more than offer passive support.
- Find a local leader to champion the initiative. Often this is a local elected official, a municipal technology staff person, a local business leader, or a prominent citizen
- Create a citizen committee of interested people from all walks of life and meet on a regular basis. Open up the meeting and encourage people to attend and express themselves.
- Be sure to reach out to the business community, parents of school children, the elderly, people in town and people in the rural areas, and especially people from places where Internet access is poor.
Gather support of citizens and local businesses to push for municipal networks:
- Hold coffee house meetings
- Reach out to key stakeholders in the community.
- Identify supportive businesses, government entities, and individuals.
- Write daily about the issue using compelling narratives on blogs, press releases, viral email and social media.
- For information on starting a grassroots effort, listen to our Community Broadband Bitsepisode #94 and episode #19 interviews with John St. Julien, from Lafayette, Louisiana. He led community support for the LUSFiber initiative.
- Create an online or paper survey for citizens to complete about their Internet access options and expectations. Make it simple and straightforward; encourage your neighbors to complete the survey.
- See our Broadband 101 fact sheet to help with the basic information you need about broadband and the Internet.
- Share our Economic Development and Public Savings fact sheets to share information on the benefits of municipal networks and offer real world examples from other communities.
Approach the Incumbent Providers
Local governments will almost always want to approach the incumbent providers to ask them to upgrade their networks. This is unlikely to result in any meaningful new investment, but it is important for elected officials to give incumbents an opportunity to improve their services before the community takes action.
Having a vision and knowing what problem(s) the community must solve is very important because it may be that the incumbent is fundamentally unable to solve a problem the community has and the community should be aware of that. Massive absentee companies are not likely to be able to reform their customer service practices in response to a local request.
Prepare to Counter Misinformation
Often, misinformation spreads regarding the building of municipal networks, often through well-funded campaigns bankrolled by incumbent providers. These can derail efforts cities make to serve their citizens’ best interests. One particularly effective strategy observed in the Lafayette Utility Services’ (LUS) case was the “inoculation” strategy.
- Keep, catalogue, and publicize proof of misleading ads and calls by incumbent corporations, as one alert customer did with a pushy incumbent pollster: Dirty Trick Push Pull Audio
- Use free media (YouTube) and social media (Twitter, Facebook) to advertise and inform about incumbent tactics, as with LUS' humorous Slick Sam Video
- Share arguments to counter misinformation tactics: ILSR examined a popular anti-muni piece of propaganda and provides the information to discredit the arguments repeated by groups opposed to local authority. See Correcting Community Fiber Fallacies: The Reality of Lafayette’s Gigabit Network
- Appearances on local television or radio programs to discuss the need and the initiative
Emphasize Local Decision-Making
Frame the issue in a way that highlights the differences between the motivations of incumbent providers (profits) and community networks (serving the community). Underline the importance of local choice, as opposed to allowing executives in other states determining what services will be available to your community.
Advocate For Local Policies That Enable Current or Future Investment
If your community does not have a “dig once” policy, encourage local elected officials to put one in place. Even if your community does not deploy its own network, such a policy can lay the groundwork to encourage private companies to invest because resources for underground fiber will already be in place. There are several approaches that we have documented that can serve as model policies.
Even if your state restricts placement of fiber, your community can prepare for the future by ensuring conduit placement by local agencies. Entities coordinate so construction projects are always reviewed for conduit placement candidacy. Several communities take it one step further, requiring developers to pick up the modest expense of installing conduit. A few communities with model policies are:
- Poulsbo, WA – This community’s conduit policy has limited excavation and allowed them to establish an extensive mesh network
- Mount Vernon, WA – Developers install conduit in new properties, increasing their value and expanding the possibility of future ubiquitous access.
- Dakota County, MN – The County developed a policy to coordinate excavation among public entities, reducing the cost of installing fiber by 90 percent.
Consider Possible Partners
Reach out to other communities to discuss the possibility of a multi-community partnership or to learn about their recommendations for consultants.
Are there electric or telephone cooperatives in your region that may serve as reliable partners?
Consider Financing Possibilities Early In The Process
- For information on the three most used methods to finance deployment, look to ourFinancing Municipal Networks fact sheet. Share it with others interested in the project.
- Learn about possible grant opportunities for feasibility studies, economic development, and deployment. Explore grants from organizations, local, state, and federal government. Consider partnering with nearby communities, organizations, or anchor institutions to share in the costs of a feasibility study
When Your Community Decides to Move Forward
Typically, a local government will hire a consultant and complete some form of feasibility study to determine likely costs and approaches to meet community needs. Then the community has to start making decisions about financing options and how to the build the network or find a trusted partner. The community has to continue paying attention, to make sure the network meets their needs and is producing the expected benefits.
- Community Broadband Map
- Community Broadband Bits Podcast
- Municipal Networks and Economic Development page
- Ask Us Anything: An Open Talk on Muni Networks
Examples of Misinformation:
- Longmont Commercials
- Longmont Robocalls
- Motherboard.com article on 2004 Comcast misinformation mailer used to squash municipal network referendum in Batavia, Illinois.
- Santa Monica’s City Net: An Incremental Approach to Building a Fiber Optic Network – This community used the pay-as-you-go approach over several years to provide access throughout the city.
- All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access – Learn how twelve different communities – suburban, exurban, and rural – took unique approaches to improving connectivity in Minnesota. Some chose partners, some deployed on their own. We provide valuable policy suggestions based on our findings.
- Chanute's Gig: Rural Kansas Network Built Without Borrowing – This report outlines the process that the city of Chanute went through in order to build an effective fiber network. Rather than build out the network all at once, Chanute built it incrementally without issuing bonds or borrowing money.
- The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina – This report reviews the fight and barriers set in place in Wilson, North Carolina. After Wilson, big cable corporations such as AT&T fought hard to get barriers passed into law preventing other communities from building their own fiber networks.
- Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks – This study analyzes three of the most successful locally built networks in the United States: Bristol, VA, Chattanooga, TN, and Lafayette, LA. It gives the history of each network and provides analysis on the benefits they have provided to their communities and states.
- Carolina’s Connected Community: Wilson Gives the Greenlight to Fast Internet – When the incumbents could not justify the investment, Wilson knew it needed to act to ensure economic survival. This case study shares the story of their efforts, their challenges, and their ultimate success.
- The Art of the Possible: An Overview of Public Broadband Options – This paper explores a variety of approaches, assessing different business models and the benefits/risks of each. The report was created by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation along with CTC Technology and Energy.
- The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned the Competition in North Carolina – North Carolina is one of 19 states that have barriers in place restricting municipal network initiatives. This cast study dissects how the cable and DSL lobbies took control of the telecommunications landscape in North Carolina. This is a must read for any community that needs to know the opposition they may face.
- Correcting Community Fiber Fallacies: The Reality of Lafayette’s Gigabit Network – Be ready to address common misinformation claims from those opposed to local telecommunications authority. This report takes a popular article that incorporates many falsities and addresses them one by one.
Related Resources and Nonprofit Organizations: