The Value of Community-owned Infrastructure

  • Published 2021-05-03

Holland Board of Public Works is a community-owned utility. That means we are part of the City of Holland and owned by our rate payers. “As a community-owned, not-for-profit entity, Holland BPW turns each dollar our customers spend into the services provided for them,” (Dave Koster, General Manager). We are fully immersed in our community as public service providers and residents—family, friends, neighbors. This results in a culture of community decision-making, competitive rates, and a distinguished reputation for reliability. The value of community-owned infrastructure is clear when we consider electricity, water and wastewater. However, do the benefits translate when we talk about broadband?

“Municipal networks exhibit a high level of responsiveness to consumer needs and lower prices than larger internet service providers”

Currently, broadband in Holland is primarily provided by private for-profit corporations that operate without much competition. This results in an environment that places little incentive for the providers to make significant investments to improve the quality and capability of broadband services. “Municipal networks exhibit a high level of responsiveness to consumer needs and lower prices than larger internet service providers” (The Cost of Connectivity in Ammon, Idaho, 2020). If the people of Holland decide to leverage the resources of Holland BPW to build a fiber-to-the-home (FFTH) network, community-owned infrastructure would create better connectivity and improved services, allowing our community to flourish into the future.

In a report from the Center for Internet & Society Research Publication, Talbot, Hessekiel, and Kehl describe the differences between community-owned networks. Philosophically, municipal broadband is “a means to achieving other community benefits, such as economic development, job creation, and retaining population and increasing local real estate values; many municipal utilities choose to compete on quality of service and customer support, rather than merely on price.” (2017). The authors’ research findings show “community-owned FTTH networks tend to provide lower prices for their entry-level broadband service than do private telecommunications companies, and are clearer about and more consistent in what they charge. They may help close the “digital divide” by providing broadband at prices more Americans can afford” (2017).

Talbot, Hessekiel, and Kehl’s conclusions are supported by what we learned during the Broadband Taskforce Listening Tour. Over the course of several months, a team from Holland BPW and the City of Holland met with focus groups that represent the diverse interests in our community. The purpose of the listening tour was to learn about our community’s experience and needs regarding broadband. Each group was asked the same questions, which included “what is the value of community-owned infrastructure?” Responses were in favor of community-owned infrastructure, citing strengths of local control, remaining focused on the community, trusted hometown services, and dependability.

Local control means that the utility can be agile in the way the infrastructure is managed. The scale of is conducive to community engagement and responding to needs. Local control allows Holland BPW to prioritize things that others cannot, investing in the value of our community for the long haul. Pam Curtis, CEO of Senior Resources West Michigan, explained that there is a definite benefit to being community-owned. “Your eyes stay focused on the community and your attention does not become diluted over a larger area.”

Community-owned infrastructure increases the value of the community overall. It attracts people and businesses; as we expand, the more Holland can bring in top talent. In an interview for the podcast Community Broadband Bits, Harold DePriest talks about the renowned community-owned fiber network in Chattanooga, TN. He describes how before the fiber network Chattanooga was an industrial town that struggled to keep its younger generations. “They grew up, they went off to college, and they went to other cities to find jobs. Today, if they want to, they can find good jobs right here in Chattanooga.” The city also attracts outside professional entrepreneurs who create more opportunities. “Now, on top of that, we’re having a tremendous amount of growth for us, economic growth, new hotels, new industries, new businesses, new restaurants, it’s just become a beautiful and very neat little place to live.” (Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 230, 2016).

FairlawnGig, the city of Fairlawn OH’s broadband utility, made favorable impacts on the community, including increased home resale values and bringing in 257 new jobs. Home prices rose 8.7 percent the first year and 8.2 the second year. “There are 15 new businesses in the community, in part because commercial subscribers can sign up for 10 gigabit per second connectivity. For Enterprise subscribers, 100 gigabit service is available. There are factors that contribute to the boon, of course, but before the municipal network utility, potential businesses cited Fairlawn’s poor Internet access as a reason for locating elsewhere” (Video: Residents and Businesses Declare FairlawnGig a Hit, 2019).

“Community-owned fiber would give us the ability to leverage broadband resources for ourselves and create better connectivity, communication and a better community”

Adding a robust and reliable fiber network to our community-owned utility system would increase the quality of life and make us a more competitive region. “Community-owned fiber would give us the ability to leverage broadband resources for ourselves and create better connectivity, communication and a better community,” explained Russel Fyfe, Business Technology Consultant. “What we are talking about is a future-enabling, differentiated service, that only fiber-optics can provide. The goal is to advance the community beyond what the current offering can deliver,” (Koster).

Resources

Bode, K. (2018, January 23). More Than 750 American Communities Have Built Their Own Internet Networks. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en/article/a3np4a/new-municipal-broadband-map

Talbot, David, Kira Hessekiel, and Danielle Kehl. 2017. Community-Owned Fiber Networks: Value Leaders in America. Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society Research Publication. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:34623859

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 230. (2016). Community Broadband Networks. https://muninetworks.org/content/transcript-community-broadband-bits-episode-230

The Cost of Connectivity in Ammon, Idaho. (2020). New America. https://www.newamerica.org/oti/reports/cost-connectivity-ammon-idaho/

Video: Residents and Businesses Declare FairlawnGig a Hit. (2019). Community Broadband Networks. https://muninetworks.org/content/video-residents-and-businesses-declare-fairlawngig-hit