Schools could face pushback from private sector when building fiber networks

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CRYSTAL CITY, Va. — Communities and school districts hoping to build their own fiber broadband networks need to prepare for pushback from the private sector, a group of broadband experts warned municipal officials this week. But there are a series of steps they can take to lessen resistance from telecom companies.

At the School, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition’s annual conference here Thursday, federal officials, network construction contractors and consultants all agreed that telecom companies often see municipal networks as a threat to their own business. But Don Williams, senior program specialist for broadband at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, stressed that that sort of reaction is completely understandable and communities should work to assuage concerns.

“They’re not your enemy, just a provider of service,” Williams said. “Like any provider of service, they just want to be the only provider because they make more money that way.”

Yet Duke Horan, program manager at network contractor Henkels & McCoy, noted that dealing with that kind of resistance can be easier said than done at times. He recalled that many communities he’s worked with have felt broadband providers have “come out of the woodwork” to organize against municipal efforts, even if they’re focused on reaching rural areas that the private sector has ignored.

Horan even cited his experience with one school district his firm is working with on the West Coast — as soon as the district awarded a network contract to Henkels & McCoy, one of the local providers filed an open records request for the documents surrounding the new deal. He suspects that “somebody’s looking through it right now to put together a protest” to the project.

“You have to take into consideration that you’re likely to see some political backlash,” Horan said.

However, Horan also said that his experience in communities that successfully built their own networks suggests that the added infrastructure in hard to reach areas often ends up being a boon for private providers as well.

“In their minds, it’s competition; it’s cutting into their business,” Horan said. “But that’s only sometimes true. If you actually look around and start running the numbers, the middle mile did empower the last mile. The biggest opponents are often now the biggest beneficiaries.”

That’s why Williams thinks communities should engage local providers in the process as early as possible. He even believes some transparency about what the community is looking for could lead companies in the area to submit their own bids for parts of the project.

“Sometimes bringing them in is a good idea, telling them what it is you need, convincing them that what they’re doing isn’t enough,” Williams said. “If you can get a better bid from an incumbent because you’ve involved them in this process, that’s not a bad thing.”

Courtney Violette, senior vice president for operations with broadband consulting firm Magellan Advisors, added that working with the community as a whole can help smooth over any pushback from telecom providers. He thinks that if the people that stand to benefit from the municipal network understand all the issues, they can be key allies if negotiations with providers breaks down.

“If you engage them and keep them part of process, then things feel more transparent and open, and that helps with the politics of all this,” Violette said.

But more than anything else, Horan believes localities and school districts should be prepared for the eventuality of dealing with reticence from telecom companies, and simply knowing about the potential for a problem is half the battle.

“If you’re not prepared to deal with that, it’s difficult to address it,” Horan said.

Yet Horan cautioned that “building a network isn’t a solution for everyone,” and that simply working with existing providers can be an answer for some communities.

“Everyone wants to own their own networks, own their own destiny and not go to the carriers every time they want to scale them, but there are challenges that go along with that,” Violette said.

But all three experts agree that building a municipal network is doable for most communities. In particular, Williams urged school directs and local governments to work together to combine their IT expertise.

“If political relations between the school system and the local government are smooth, you can take advantage of that,” Williams said.

Contact the reporter at alex.koma@statescoop.com and follow him on Twitter @AlexKomaSNG.

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