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Treat broadband as infrastructure and we have a chance to get it right

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According to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), apparently everything is infrastructure. Current debate in Washington may lead the public to wonder if anything will end up as infrastructure. Our prediction is that broadband is one key component that will be tackled. However, Washington seems poised, yet again, to try to address the issue by throwing billions of dollars at it to be managed at the national level, and already there is a chorus of voices demanding that access to broadband be “free.” All this will ensure the effort fails. 

What’s needed is a recognition that the only approach that can succeed is a novel combination of public-private partnerships at the local level. The important recognition is that cities are not monolithic. Broadband is a neighborhood issue, driven by different socioeconomic factors that must be addressed. 

Three business models need to be employed. The traditional business model, where service providers charge customers a fee, will suffice for areas already wired and returning a profit. An ad or sponsorship model, where base stations are sponsored by companies, will probably develop into a workable alternative. And finally, there is a model joining governmental and philanthropic/charitable support, where there is a need for ultra-low or no-cost service.

This overall approach requires the right level of government providing leadership that is transparent and responsive but has the heft to be an effective facilitator or coordinator. Accountability requires an articulated goal. 

For many states, this challenge should be met at the county level. Thirty-five cities comprise Dallas County, Texas, for example, where we live, and the county is larger than some countries. Our goal is to have 95 percent of households countywide receiving obtainable — as opposed to just available — broadband, and for a cost of no more than 2 percent of monthly income. By comparison, some households are spending up to 8 percent of income on broadband access and the service they get is inferior. 

After a year of publicity about the growth of services such as telemedicine, the lack of service in rural areas and low-income neighborhoods, the desperation of school districts reduced to driving school buses around with hot spots, and other examples, it’s not necessary to show how dependent our economy and way of life have become on communication. Even the smallest of small businesses found themselves needing up-to-date websites and capabilities. Households with working parents and several kids needed service that could accommodate multiple devices.

We have a situation where we have a desired public good that a private market cannot satisfy because it is cost prohibitive for too many deserving audiences. The solution is to separate the capital investment from the operating expense — that is, to have governmental bodies work together to provide the capital investment, the pipes (that is, the metal wire or optical fiber), maintaining the accountability of private ventures, and then have private entities take possession for a completed project based on projected future earnings, which themselves will be premised on a combination of business models as noted above.  

One challenge is to act with a sense of urgency. A public entity typically will go through a multi-step process looking at an alphabet soup of RFIs, RFPs, RFQs and more regulatory layers. The process can take years. A consortium of governmental bodies can own the pipes, much as it does with other forms of true infrastructure. Equally important, the broadband version of a utility district can aggregate demand, provide easements starting where they already exist, provide low-cost funding via mechanisms such as development bonds, and create tax incentives through vehicles such as opportunity zones. 

This solution takes advantage of economies of scale and bridges all the tendencies to “go it alone.” School districts have needs; so do cities’ health and police departments. And don’t forget the local transportation entities, which often span multiple municipalities, as well as hospital systems — and the list goes on. The point is, all these entities are grappling with how to create or upgrade capabilities. 

This experiment to bring them together at a level close to the consumer and taxpayer would be carried out in full public view. This certainly could cause a level of discomfort for those involved, but the chance to get it right is worth the commitment. 

One of our favorite quotes is credited to multiple presidents — both Roosevelts, Eisenhower and Obama: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” We can do a lot, and we have a lot to work with at a critical time in our nation’s history.  

J.J. Koch is a Dallas County commissioner and an attorney with expertise in the field of legal technology. 

Todd Furniss is CEO of gTC Group, a private equity firm based in Dallas, and the author of “The 60% Solution: Rethinking Healthcare” and the host of podcast “Civil Discourse.”

Tags Broadband Infrastructure Internet access Kirsten Gillibrand National Broadband Plan

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