Involving local stakeholders is crucial for success with publicly owned networks


Leaders gathered at Broadband Communities Summit 2024 to discuss how to successfully gather local support for constructing a publicly owned network.

By: Brad Randall, Broadband Communities

Engagement is key with any successful public broadband network hoping to get off the ground, according to Chris Walker, the senior executive director of Infrastructure Strategy Noa Net, a non-profit public broadband organization owned by public utilities that operates in the Pacific Northwest.

Walker joined the stage with panelists from a range of public and private backgrounds at a workshop titled “How to Build a Public Network,” moderated by Gigi Sohn, the executive director of the American Association for Public Broadband, at Broadband Communities Summit 2024 in Houston.

The panel, which kicked off Broadband Communities Summit 2024 in Houston, discussed strategies that can be implemented when embarking on the journey towards building a community-owned network project.

Kerem Durdag, the CEO of Maine-based Great Works Internet, said providers need to realize it’s alright to make money, but it’s also alright to have a social contract defining how a given project will benefit the community.

Bill Badran, the broadband services supervisor from the Holland Board of Public Works in Holland, Michigan, said it takes a lot of steps and warned those embarking on a journey to open publicly-owned open access networks to expect pain points.

“Really take the time to educate,” he said, and added that time needs to be taken to find key leaders to support a proposed project beyond typical city councilors.

“Always have that discussion about equity, about inclusion,” Badran said.

Walker emphasized collaboration with stakeholders in a community.

“Leverage your neighbors, they’ll help you become successful,” he said.

Laura Lewis, the owner of LRB Public Finance Advisors, which provides financial consulting services to municipalities, encouraged those hoping to build community-owned networks not to take no for an answer if it’s the kneejerk response to such a suggestion.

“There is always a way to get these things done,” she said, and referenced a wealth of tools for local governments that are often available at the state and federal level.

Walker encouraged public officials to treat publicly owned networks as businesses.

Even though you may be a public agency running a broadband network you are competing for customers, he said.

The biggest challenge is expectations, added Durdag, who pointed out that much of the nation is living in areas that see extreme weather. He said, due to these challenges, publicly owned networks must be built for the long term.

Badran said a main hurdle to overcome was opposition from private companies who opposed a publicly owned open access network in his community.

“It’s amazing to see that that’s the challenge,” he said. “Because the biggest opportunity is, when you look at it, not only that you can be part of a community to provide affordable connectivity, but you’re also providing an economic development environment.”

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