Does the Middle Mile hold the key to broadband success?

The first batch of stimulus grant winners was announced right before Christmas, followed by a flurry of news articles, blog posts and Twitter tweets trying to decipher the digital tea leaves to determine a pattern of what types of projects will be funded next. I added my two cents, of course.

One “pattern” that bubbled up from these mere 18 awards is that middle mile projects are hot. While this week we could see some more announcements that confirm – or not – this is where much of the stimulus money is going, there’s a lot to recommend middle mile as the broadband path you might want to follow, with or without the stimulus.

There’s a debate going on about whether the national broadband strategy should focus on last mile or middle mile as the best and most economical way to get broadband into underserved communities. One of the big arguments favoring middle mile is that, even though it costs a lot to build, you can make broadband available to communities without incurring the costs to sell, support and upgrade services to subscribers.

In my broadband strategy book coming out later this month, Cambria County, PA shows one way to proceed with a project if you decide to go with a middle mile strategy. They wanted to build a network primarily for public safety, and to also enable all of the towns and townships in the county to have valuable Internet access. However, the county didn’t want to be in the business of serving end users directly. Here’s the excerpt.

CAMBRIA COUNTY’S STORY

In Pennsylvania, Cambria County trumped Verizon by using the telco’s own anti-muni network rules to build a county-owned middle mile network that moves beyond public safety to impact education, economic development and digital inclusion. Planners of the 700 square-mile network, which has been up and running since June 2008, used the following approach that I believe you will see become the foundation for many projects.

The county created a network infrastructure with features developed to withstand the rigors of public safety use (e.g. must-have-24/7 reliability, redundancy, disaster recovery). Once you build a network with that much power, there is tremendous excess network capacity for other uses.

They incorporated into the infrastructure multiple wireless technologies (5.8 GHz, 900 MHz, 4.9 and WiFi), and support for other wireless technologies such as WiMAX, SCADA and automated meter reading. This gives the last mile builders and service providers great flexibility in being able to use a technology that best meets their respective customers’needs.

The county generates various cost savings by reducing or eliminating telecom service contracts so they can receive these services through the network, therefore recovering much of the money they spent to build the network. If you identify one or two key uses for the middle mile infrastructure that allows you to recoup costs, you’re in a strong financial position to facilitate last-mile capabilities.

Cambria County offers the network infrastructure as a digital “turnpike” to their 62 municipalities, enabling those munis to deploy applications and services that meet their respective needs, rather than trying to sell everyone the same package of applications. Along with Conxx, the county’s vendor that manages the network as a contractor, officials offer schools a package of services that enable them to now provide education and training that prepares the local workforce to function in a digital economy.

The county and Conxx recruited service providers to lease the network infrastructure to providers that are selling services to general consumers that offer faster speeds and lower prices than previously available, if highspeed access was even a possibility. Note that this focus on the general consumer comes AFTER ensuring the network’s financial sustainability through services to local government and other stakeholders.

Since the initial service providers are mainly consumer focused, the county launched a second wave of recruiting to bring in providers that offer business services that further accelerate economic development. This, along with the retraining of the local workforce, is bringing new businesses into the area.

Here’s something very important to note. Because each of these services used by the county or offered by them to their various constituents directly saved money or generated revenues for the county, financial institutions literally lined up to offer Cambria County financing. This is a local government attracting investments that some private sector companies trying to deploy similar networks have been unable to do.

Check out my book when it’s released to learn more about the value of a good middle mile broadband strategy (Stay tuned for the shipping date).

There’s a heated discussion on the MuniWireless Linked In Group about the middle mile. Join us there.

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MuniWireless 2010 Media Kit

The MuniWireless 2010 Media Kit is now available. Find out how you can effectively promote your products and services on MuniWireless.com (using our email newsletter, webinars, and events as well). Email me for the 2010 Media Kit.

*Attention vendors and consultants! Make sure you’re included in our online Vendor Directory and in the directory of version 2.0 of the Muniwireless guide on how to get a grant from the NTIA and RUS (send an email to me). Version 2.0 of the guide will contain the revised NTIA and RUS rules for the second round of broadband stimulus funding.

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