Powering Connectivity: The Rise of Utility-Based Broadband for Bridging the Digital Divide

During the Broadband Communities Summit, experts emphasized the significance of a utility-based broadband model as the ultimate solution for bridging the digital divide. Josh Leonard from engineering company Burns and McDonalds stated, “If we’re going to solve the digital divide, we need to use the utility model.”

The utility model, also known as municipal broadband, entails publicly owned broadband infrastructure, where service providers lease the networks in an open-access system to provide residents with connectivity. Leonard highlighted that while most state and city officials now recognize broadband as a crucial utility after the COVID-19 pandemic, they often fail to treat it accordingly.

“If we’re going to solve the digital divide, we need to use the utility model,” stated Josh Leonard from engineering company Burns and McDonalds.

A utility model, sometimes dubbed municipal broadband, is broadband infrastructure owned by public entities. Service is provided to residents by service providers that lease publicly owned networks in an open-access system.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, most state and city officials understand that broadband needs to be the fourth utility – after water, gas and electricity – said Leonard, but they do not treat it as such.

Utilities understand how to operate large infrastructure projects that connect hundreds and thousands of homes, said Sean Stokes, partner at Keller and Heckman law firm. Utilities already have a core internal communication capability and already have essential infrastructure in place such as utility poles.

Sean Stokes, a partner at Keller and Heckman law firm, explained that utilities possess the expertise to handle large-scale infrastructure projects, connecting numerous homes. They already possess core internal communication capabilities and essential infrastructure like utility poles. Although utilities typically prefer not to be internet service providers, Stokes noted that they are well-suited to manage and lease the network to providers.

Ashley Poling from fiber network software company COS Systems emphasized that open access enables partnerships with investors who are not interested in operating or providing services directly. This approach facilitates the addition of multiple providers, eliminates issues with underperforming service, and puts pressure on non-performing providers, creating a competitive market.

Francisco Arbide of NextEra Infrastructure Solutions emphasized the importance of building fiber infrastructure with the capacity to accommodate current and future needs. This approach avoids multiple disruptions caused by future digging, enables flexibility in adding providers, and holds non-performing providers accountable.

Stokes highlighted that entities planning large-scale infrastructure investments often overlook the actual costs of deployment, accessing utility poles, challenges in the supply chain, and labor shortages. The experts agreed that leveraging existing utility assets is the most effective solution.

Seema Patel of Chapman and Cutler emphasized the significance of industry experience when undertaking broadband projects. She stated that having experience in the field is critical for success.

Ashley Poling concluded by stating that the infrastructure-based utility model is the key to achieving nearly 100 percent digital equity. States that understand this concept will be at the forefront of ensuring equal access, while others may lag behind.

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