The Art of the Possible: An Overview of Public Broadband Options

Policy Paper
May 6, 2014

Broadband has become a critical infrastructure for communities in the 21st century. From a variety of sectors, including commerce, education, healthcare and government services, the demands for more advanced, reliable, and affordable broadband is challenging local governments to develop effective strategies for connecting their citizens, businesses, and institutions. Communities lacking access altogether or still relying on first generation networks will find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide and will find it challenging to attract and retain businesses, provide quality education, and deliver modern healthcare. Local government and community investment can serve as a path for bringing next generation broadband, while also developing network infrastructure and models to meet specific community needs and aspirations.

In the U.S., local governments and communities have taken the lead in building next generation broadband infrastructure. In more than 100 cities and towns across America, a public entity provides services to homes and businesses throughout the community.1 In many hundreds more, the locality provides cutting-edge communications services to such key community facilities as schools, libraries, hospitals, and senior centers. Indeed, public broadband networks in cities and rural towns are providing some of the fastest broadband connections to residents, businesses, and community anchor institutions.

This public effort has been made necessary by the failure of incumbent industries to build next generation infrastructure. As Blair Levin, architect of the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan, noted in a speech in June 2012:

For the first time since the beginning of the commercial internet, the United States does not have a national wire line provider with plans to build a better network than the currently best available network.2

Cable and telephone incumbents that often serve as the only broadband providers in most communities have not committed to making significant upgrades or investment in new infrastructure to ensure that each and every community has access to next generation broadband. And despite the attention surrounding Google Fiber announcements, the project remains limited in scope and will impact only a small fraction of the American public. Most communities will not have the benefit of an additional private competitor to spur higher speeds and more affordable access.

The challenge, however, for other localities seeking to build new broadband capabilities is to develop a plan for a sustainable and scalable project that meets the unique needs and aspiration of the community while accounting for the financial realities and other risks unique to each broadband project. That means there is no one-size-fits-all approach to developing a successful public broadband network. In some cases, a public network may not make sense at all. In others, the best strategy may be to start with a small network that connects only government and community anchor institutions. For others, an extensive, multi-service fiber network connecting residences and businesses may be the only means to ensure the community is not left behind in the digital economy.

The one thing communities cannot do is sit on the sidelines. Even the process of evaluating whether a public network is appropriate can be beneficial to community leaders as a means to better understand the communications needs of their residents, businesses, and institutions and whether existing services and networks are keeping pace.

The purpose of this report is to enable communities to begin the evaluation of their broadband options. The report begins with an overview of different network ownership and governance models, followed by an overview of broadband technologies to help potential stakeholders understand the advantages and disadvantages of each technology. It then provides a brief summary of several different business models for publicly owned networks. The final two chapters focus on the potential larger local benefits and the risks of a publicly funded broadband project.

[1] See “Community Network Map,” Institute for Local Self-Reliance, [2] Blair Levin, “Upgrading America: Achieving a Strategic Bandwidth Advantage And a Psychology of Bandwidth Abundance To Drive High-Performance Knowledge Exchange,” (remarks given at Fujitsu Conference on Paving the Road to Unlimited Bandwidth: Technologies and Applications for a Connected Age, San Jose, California, June 13, 2012) remarks available at