Municipal Broadband: What’s Broadband?


Municipal Broadband’s Definition Is Critical to Success

In ISE magazine’s February 2019 kickoff article to this new section, Municipal Broadband, I asked a fundamental question: What is Municipal Broadband? Is it Internet access as a city service? Critical civic infrastructure? Both? Or something else entirely?

This definition isn’t about having fun with words. The definition chosen determines the legal, regulatory, and competitive, environments civic leaders will face. It also drives every business, technical, and financial, decision they will make.

Part of the ambiguity with the term Municipal Broadband is the term broadband. It’s a word that has been in use for many decades and has had, and still has, many different meanings. To Telcos, broadband once meant a multi-service Layer 2 network based on Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM). Then, the cable industry branded the term to mean their Layer 3 High Speed Internet Access service. (If this doesn’t sound similar to what Cable is doing with 10G, it should.)

Today, incumbent providers, including cable, telco, and mobile, all use the term to describe their Internet Access service. At the same time, Municipal Open Access Network Operators use the term to describe a passive Fiber-to-the-Premises infrastructure and/or an active multi-service layer 2 network (e.g., Ethernet) civil infrastructure. It is also common for many to equate broadband and Internet access, and often the terms are used interchangeably.

For discussion purposes, our broadband network starts with your devices, screens and things, and ends in the nearest big city co-location facilities (co-lo) or wherever you interconnect with the cloud. It includes the most challenging parts, which includes the access or Last Mile network as well as the Middle Mile network connecting your aggregation points to the big city co-lo. The access network includes all the wires (fiber, coax, and copper) running down every street as well as all the cell towers and pole mounted 5G small cells appearing on the landscape. (See Figure 1.)

The Broadband Ecosystem

Figure 1.

Broadband is a multi-dimensional and complex issue. It’s important to keep in mind that it’s just one group of a dozen other major issues facing cities and towns. Adding to the complexity is that many civic leaders are part-time city officials and their day jobs aren’t telecommunications-related.

What is Municipal Broadband? It is not a new and clever version of today’s Telco, Cable, and Wireless, versions of broadband. Most cities don’t have an installed-base of Triple Play equipment to depreciate, and they don’t have a legacy billing system to “cloudify”. Incumbent service providers have that installed base. A very large and inflexible installed-base. These existing infrastructures are referred to as a brownfield, with a greenfield being a new network, or a blank sheet of paper.

Thus, municipal broadband deployments, as well as those of any other overbuild such as Google Fiber are greenfields. With the exception being the utility poles and shared communication infrastructure, such as conduit, ducts, and towers. This is a big, yet surmountable, exception, which needs to be addressed in future architectures.

This is a critical distinction. Since you essentially have a greenfield, why build yesterday’s network? Why replicate yesterday’s business models including Internet access? Why even think in terms of yesterday’s network architectures and business models? By clarifying this distinction, you can then focus on your community aspirations and what communication infrastructure you’ll need to achieve your goals.

You may not need to do any of this yourself, you just have to make sure it gets done in a timely and reasonable and non-discriminatory way. The private market may meet your needs. The challenge arises when the private sector doesn’t meet the community demands, expectations, and time frames. Then, municipal leaders must decide what steps they need to take and when to take them to ensure all their community’s needs are met. This includes every municipality, even those with gigabit competition. It’s hard to predict the future but we do know if will be different than today, and there will be innovative services we can’t think of now. A city’s goal should be to ensure the community has all the communication components necessary to be a vibrant 21st Century community.



About Author

Greg Whelan, Principal at Greywale Advisors, is a leading expert on Open Access Broadband and Neutral Communication Infrastructure. He provides guidance to a wide range of broadband ecosystem participants including Technology Vendors, Municipal Leaders, Communication Service Providers, and Private Equity Investors. Greywale Advisors is a leading independent research firm focused on The Open and Neutral Future of Broadband. They work with private and public entities throughout the ecosystem to create the business, technical and financial architectures and implementation plans. If you’d like to discuss this, please contact us at For more information, please visit Follow Greywale Advisors on Twitter @greywale.

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