Somewhere between politics and protests, practical solutions usually can be found. Those who prefer practicality to rhetoric can often avoid the slings and arrows of political fortune and chart their own course to a desired end.
My request for responses to my column on how a controversial Pennsylvania law will impact municipal wireless turned up one such solution in Kutztown, Pa.
The missive from Kutztowns IT director was the first in what became a strong majority of reader responses that strongly favored municipalities rights to provide connectivity services to their residents, without first submitting them to the veto of the big broadband companies they would compete with.
They thought the obstacles that Pennsylvanias House Bill 30 (now law) places on wireless services—actually, on all of broadband—are too many, are too high, and play too much into the hands of monopolies to be palatable.
Still others echoed the keep-government-out-of-business argument that brought about HB30. In between, there were folks who liked the idea of municipal wireless but worried about its implementation and about markets where muni-wireless would replace private carriers, rather than add to the competitive landscape. (Stay tuned for a more detailed report on reader responses from both sides.)
Then, there was the missive from Frank Caruso, director of information for the borough of Kutztown, Pa.
: Debate Model”> If youve heard of Kutztown, its probably because you saw the name on a road sign on your way to Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Its not far from the transportation corridors that carry cars and trucks east from the Pennsylvania Turnpike to New York City or south to Philadelphia.
Kutztown is an idyllic place, the sort of place people move to when they want to escape the heat, traffic and garbage of big cities, where they go to breathe clean air, and rest assured that their children are safe at play.
Kutztown is a college town, so full of charm that folks who go there once swear theyll come back to stay someday. But for too long, there was one big problem: Kutztown didnt have much staying power.
The borough lacked the technical services needed to attract and keep new businesses and big-city residents spoiled by connectivity. With only about 5,000 people living within its 1.6-square-mile territory, Kutztown wasnt what big business considered much of a market.
The cost of bringing broadband services to the community outweighed its market potential. Thus, no one was interested in providing the services and, in an evil Catch 22, the market wasnt likely to get any bigger if it didnt get the services..
“The advanced services we needed to grow economically were not here,” Caruso told me. “We kind of fell off the chart.”
Unable to get any providers interested in its tiny market, Kutztown opted to build out a fiber network of its own and offer it for lease to private companies—as many as it could attract. It was an if-you-build-it-broadband-providers-will-come approach, and it seemed like a slam-dunk. Spared the cost of the build-out, what provider could say no? By providing a level playing field for providers to play on at the same lease rate, Kutztown would be the magnet that broadband providers could not resist … or so it seemed.
“That was the original intention,” Caruso said. “But when we went after RFPs [requests for proposals], we could not find anyone who wanted to play ball with us.”
Neither Comcast nor any other large cable provider in Pennsylvania was interested. Neither Verizon (which does provide Kutztown with local dial-up services), nor any other large telco was interested in providing DSL.
Finally, the borough did attract a regional cable company and a regional ISP to provide the connectivity Kutztown needed to launch a municipal broadband service on the network. But the situation was still not ideal.
Local residents complained about high cable rates and ultimately, the borough decided to inject a little competition into the scenario by launching its own cable service. According to Caruso, the cable company immediately reduced its rates by 40 percent.
With those successes under its belt, the community began to work with a regional integrator, LanTek, to build out a wireless offering.
Then along came HB30, and a political stew that focused more on the age-old government-versus-business rhetoric than on what was happening—or not happening, as the case may be—out in communities such as Kutztown.
The Kutztown model takes the either-or out of the equation and proves that municipal broadband need not put a municipal lock on competition. In fact, it demonstrates how municipalities can enhance competition.
: Opening Market”> Kutztown is a triumph of free enterprise inspired by municipal involvement. Lets take a look at the outcomes of Kutztowns program:
- It delivered services to a community that private providers neglected.
- It created opportunities for local and regional providers that could not have competed there if they had not been spared the cost of building the infrastructure.
- By introducing a municipal service to the competitive mix, the borough expanded the number of choices available to consumers, held their costs and provided an incentive to private carriers to enhance their offerings to better compete for customers.
In the debate over municipal broadband, its a model that defies the extremes on both sides of the debate. It just works and works well.
Now, HB 30 has effectively given veto power on municipal efforts to the very carriers that neglected Kutztown all along.
The last chapter of the municipal broadband story, of which municipal wireless is but a chapter, wont be written across the country for quite some time. But the book in Pennsylvania closes in 2006, when munis that havent implemented a plan will relinquish the right to do so to Verizon, the incumbent carrier.
To its credit, Verizon is now pursuing an aggressive broadband build-out thats finally begun to reach out to smaller communities, and its heavily touting that effort in news releases that announce DSL services coming online in some small community or another.
But there is a limit to how quickly one provider can move and how much of its budget one provider is willing to allocate toward the effort. And the operative phrase here, of course, is “one provider.” With legislation such as HB30, thats all we get.
For his part, Caruso said he thinks ownership of local broadband services is not the issue at all. “Its all about owning the customer,” he told me. Those who wrote to disagree said it was all about open markets and competition. But I must say, Im still looking hard for anything that resembles competition in Pennsylvanias new law.