A Planner’s Role in Municipal Broadband

OTELCO Vice President of Marketing, Sales, and Customer Service, Trevor Jones talks to a group of planners about Municipal Broadband.

OTELCO’s Trevor Jones speaks at the 2018 NNECAP conference.

Last week was the Northern New England Chapter of the American Planning Association’s 2018 conference. NNECAPA met at Point Look Out in Northport, ME to discuss a myriad of issues centered on this year’s theme, “Defining Resiliency for Northern New England.” OTELCO was proud to be a presenter and sponsor of this conference, weighing in on the importance of municipal broadband, and how planners can help bring fiber to the premise to their communities.

Maine Calling

Before the conference even began, NNECAPA representatives took to the radio to share a little insight on what being a Municipal Planner really does. Jennifer Rooks of Main Public Radio’s Maine Calling, interviewed Sarah Marchant, the director of community development for the City of Nashua and the president of NECAPA, Ben Smith, the founder of North Star Planning; and Mark Eyerman a long time planner and owner of the consulting firm PlanME.

Trevor Jones, OTELCO’s Vice President of Marketing, Sales, and Customer Service, was also featured on the show, blocking out three things planners should keep in mind “as they start engaging in the broadband process”. Those three things were:

  • Understanding that, though broadband is an important utility, it is also “technology-based infrastructure” and that planners will need to learn and adapt to that technological way of thinking.
  • Getting an understanding of what resources are already in a planner’s community by talking to providers who are already in the area, because “it is never a good idea to spend money on something that already exists.”
  • Sorting out the varying advice each provider gives so that planners can “listen to those different alternatives and make an informed decision on what is the best solution for their community.”

If you are interested in listening to Trevor’s municipal broadband advice, or in learning about the role of municipal planners, check out Maine Calling’s recording of the show.

Listen to Maine Calling's Municipal Planners Episode 

OTELCO's sponsor table was covered in information about municipal broadband.

OTELCO was a sponsor of the Conference.

The Presentation

OTELCO Marketing Manager Tracy Scheckel and Vice President of Marketing, Sales, and Customer Service Trevor Jones, both presented, along with Chris Campbell of Tilson Technologies, Heather Johnson of the ConnectME Authority, and Tom Bartell, of the Windham Economic Development Corp. Each member of the group shared important wisdom on the role planners can take in the municipal broadband process.

After Tracy kicked things off with some introductions, Chris Campbell, of Tilson Technologies, took over. Chris was there to break down the planning process municipalities go through when taking on a fiber to the premise project. According to Chris, the planning process can be broken down into four steps:

  1. Assessment: This is when planners step back and look at:
  • What services and useful assets they have
  • What services do they need or want that they don’t have
  • What are their options for getting there
  • What can existing providers do for them
  1. Feasibility: The second step involves looking at the business case for building a fiber network, and how that project would be funded and operated.
  2. Design / Vendor / Partner Selection: Here the planner looks at who is going to help them build their new broadband network.
  3. Build / Implementation: This last step involves implementing the desired network or service improvements done by the community’s selected partners or vendors.

Heather Johnson, the director of the ConnectME authority, used her time to go over some important considerations planners should take under advisement when working with their community to create a municipal broadband expansion plan. Heather’s recommendations were:

  • Employ a Diverse Broadband Committee
  • Allow Time for Venting and Time for Constructive Work
  • Be Effective with Data Collection
  • Consider All Business Models
  • Engage Providers Early, Be Concrete
  • Think Broad and Long Range – It’s Easier to Phase a Large Project than to Restart
  • Identify Adoption Barriers
  • Don’t Underestimate the Amount of Discussion and Marketing Needed to get the Support for Necessary Funding
Tom Bartell talks to an audience of planners about the Lake Region Broadband Partnership's municipal broadband planning journey.

Tom Bartell has worked tirelessly to bring Fiber Internet to the Lake Regions area.

Lakes Region Broadband Partnership
After Heather, Tom Bartell took the mic, eager to illustrate the long journey of the Lake Region Broadband Partnership. The partnership is made up of four communities in the Sebago Lake Region: Gray, Raymond, Standish, and Windham. The four towns, along with several local stakeholders like St. Joseph’s College, banded together to bring fiber to their region.
The first step in their journey to connectivity was working with Tilson to create the High-Speed Broadband in the Lake Region report. The report can be broken down into five major parts:

  1. Broadband Goals: Helping the Partnership develop and clarify their broadband goals
  2. Asset Inventory: Creating an inventory of all of the existing Internet infrastructure through the four towns, including speeds and technology (Fiber, DSL, Wireless etc.)
  3. Outreach: Tilson met with local organizations in the community, to conduct interviews on how they currently use the Internet, what speeds they have, how they feel they are being severed, and what they think they will need in the future.
  4. Service Provider Meetings: Tilson set up meetings with OTELCO (OTT at the time), Spectrum (Time Warner at the time), Consolidated Communications (FairPoint at the time), and GWI communications to better understand what they were providing to the community.
  5. Path Forward and Capital Cost Comparisons: Created recommendations and cost analysis for a future fiber project.

Sometime after the Tilson report was published, the Lake Regions Broadband Partnership began working with Axiom Technologies. Together with Axiom they applied for and were rewarded a ConnectME planning grant. With the grant, they were able to look deeper into the concerns of the Lake Region, discern some advantages to the fiber project, and create a digital inclusion plan. With Axiom, the partnership was also able to create a build-out plan and a fiscal projection for the build.

Trevor Jones, of OTELCO, was the last present. Trevor talked to the planners about how they can work with existing providers to develop a municipal broadband fiber network. Trevor explained that there are four roles a current provider can take and that the attitude planners and municipalities have towards these providers ultimately decides what role they will choose.  The four roles are:

  • Customer: In an open access network, current providers are likely users of the network.
  • Partner: An existing provider can work with a community, leveraging both the provider’s and the community’s resources collectively to get a better and more cost-effective result for all.
  • Competitor: Where the municipal network and the current provider’s network overlap, they will compete against the community and reduce network adoption.
  • Adversary: In the worst case, existing providers may actively oppose a planner’s efforts

Partnering with a provider can result in a number of benefits, including big savings. At the same time, creating an adversary out of a provider can really cost a municipality. To maintain a positive relationship with a provider, planners should create positive conversations, and be willing to compromise.

There is Always More

This blog really just touched the surface of what the team went over during last week’s presentation. If you are interested in learning more, please take a look at the great Municipal Broadband material OTELCO has to offer.

Check Out Our Municipal Resources