The FAST PIIPS Connectivity Model, Part 5: The Role of Community Benefit-Focused Organizations

In the past I’ve written about the added value that public benefit-focused institutions (e.g., cooperatives, community anchor institutions (CAIs), municipal utilities, and social enterprises) can contribute to the connectivity equation, especially in relatively rural areas with high per-premise construction costs that make healthy competition among profit- and share price-driven entities extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve.

A key theme of this prior work has been that these public benefit-focused institutions tend to:

  • have less demanding criteria regarding the level and timing of the direct financial return on their investment;
  • are more likely to invest in directions they believe directly serve the public interest, as contrasted with organizations that prioritize private-owners’ interests but will, according to economic theory, serve the public interest if subject to market power-constraining competition, a situation unlikely to emerge in high-cost rural areas.

Other policy themes I’ve addressed in my earlier work relate to the development of the Internet and unlicensed spectrum models as key drivers of technical innovation, market entry and competitive options, and how these two developments relate to each other and can expand the range of entities and individuals able to cost-effectively use communication technology to pursue their goals, including CAIs, small businesses and others whose communication needs might otherwise be dependent on services provided by profit- and share price-focused companies with substantial and, in some cases, monopolistic market power.

New technical capabilities enable new models for serving the public interest

In 2008, when the FCC was weighing key policy decisions related to its treatment of TVWS, I drafted a policy analysis entitled Spectrum Policy 2.0: White Space, the Internet and the Public Interest.  In it I explained how the combination of an open high-speed Internet and expanded unlicensed spectrum opens the door to a more direct approach to serving the public interest than was possible when the 1934 Communication Act first established the electronic communication sector’s public interest standard and throughout the remaining pre-Internet era of the 20th century.  That paper introduced the term PIIP (Public Interest IP) to describe an Internet-era network and service model that provides an alternative to:

  1. the dominant industry models that evolved over decades in highly siloed telecom and media markets, which were built around less capable technologies than are available today and have exhibited a strong tendency toward consolidation and anti-competitive market power and;
  2. regulatory approaches applied to these markets intended to constrain the harms of excessive market power and to steer at least some impacts of private sector self-interested behaviors in the direction of a public interest standard that proved difficult to define and enforce, especially as technology and market dynamics evolved.

Later in 2008 I co-authored a report examining how the municipal fiber model is in some cases especially well suited to bring the full benefits of high-speed Internet access to insufficiently served local communities, especially if state legislatures don’t succumb to pressure from their state’s dominant ISPs (directly or via ALEC) to pass laws that impose unique and onerous burdens that weaken the economic viability of municipal networks, which these ISPs view as actual or potential competitors.  I’ve also found that electric cooperatives can be key players in extending fiber in very rural areas, and got involved in a particular approach to developing this potential around 2010, when USDA’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) was investing stimulus funds to expand rural access.

More recently, I contrasted “generative” vs. “financially extractive” ownership and control models in both local access and backhaul (formerly Special Access, now Business Data Services) markets in a series of posts on the blog of Michigan State University’s Quello Center.  And most recently, I co-authored a Quello Center report entitled Wireless Innovation for Last Mile Access: An Analysis of Cases and Business Strategies that examined a range of emerging FAST PIIPS-friendly models for extending access to underserved populations in both rural and urban areas.

In addition to shedding light on the FAST (fiber and spectrum together) technology-related innovations that can help bridge challenging connectivity gaps, the wireless innovation report also considered the PIIPS element of the FAST PIIPS model.  It did so by examining the important roles played by public benefit-focused entities including: 1) nonprofit Research & Education Networks (RENs) that provide high-capacity fiber backhaul in many states, many of whose networks were expanded substantially with the help of stimulus funding; 2) community anchor institutions (CAIs), including schools, libraries and local governments, many of which are served by REN fiber connections and; 3) privately owned but public benefit-focused social enterprises, a good example of which is Axiom Technologies, an entrepreneurial ISP that, with the help of a Microsoft grant, has begun using TVWS to serve very rural and hard to reach parts of Maine.

Among the report’s conclusions was that:

“Given the economic and other challenges associated with bridging our nation’s remaining gaps in broadband access and the benefits it provides, locally-anchored enterprises and business models focused on sustainably addressing local needs may be better suited to this task than enterprises and business models focused on maximizing investor returns in national or global markets.”

It’s worth noting here that it is the usage of a broadband network rather than its mere existence that generates value and contributes to economic growth and quality of life. Certainly profit- and share price-maximizing access providers have strong incentive to attract paying customers and, in some cases, have invested in digital literacy programs coupled with discounted service and low cost devices to increase adoption.  But I’d argue that CAIs and social enterprises will, in most cases, place less emphasis than profit-focused firms on generating financial surpluses and more on supporting community benefits (an assertion I’ve suggested be tested by research focused on both access and backhaul networks).

Related to this is the fact that some CAIs, notably libraries and schools, bring to the table not only a strong motivation to promote network usage, but also a range of content and services that can help turn that usage into educational and other individual- and community-level benefits.  For example, according to a recent Pew Research survey, 78% of American adults (including 87% of millennials) believe public libraries “help them find information that is trustworthy and reliable,” and 76% of adults (85% of millennials) say libraries “help them learn new things.”

Michigan as a FAST PIIPS pioneer and testbed

As noted earlier in this series, Michigan has emerged as a leader in deploying networks that will help explore whether and under what circumstances the FAST PIIPS model can help expand broadband availability, adoption, usage and benefits in rural America. For example:

As discussed in a prior post, the EBS-based Educational Access Network (EAN) being deployed by Northern Michigan University–which uses LTE technology, relies heavily on backhaul provided by Merit Network, and involves cooperation with other schools and CAIs–represents an emerging education-focused FAST PIIPS model.

Michigan is also poised to become a pioneer in combining innovative use of TVWS with institutional innovation in ways that are consistent with the FAST PIIPS model.  As part of its 12-state Airband initiative (discussed in an earlier post), Microsoft, working with the Gigabit Libraries Network  (GLN), Merit Network, the Library of Michigan and other entities, is providing technical and financial support for TVWS deployments by: 1) three of Michigan’s public library systems (these projects are described briefly here and in somewhat more detail here) and; 2) Allband Communications, a fiber-based local access cooperative that operates in very rural areas of northeastern Michigan.

Working with Merit, Microsoft and the area’s community anchor institutions, Allband aims to use TVWS to cost-effectively reach still-unserved rural homes, businesses and CAIs beyond the reach of the fiber that it and Merit have deployed. Though the project’s use of available TVWS channels may be limited in its pilot phase, it seems unlikely to face a shortage of available TVWS spectrum since, as discussed in an earlier post, the rural areas it’s targeting enjoy a relative abundance of unlicensed FAST PIIPS-friendly spectrum.  In some areas this amounts to more than 200 MHz of TVWS, plus another 67.5-112.5 MHz in the EBS band, the use of which is being pioneered further north in the state by NMU and its partners.

Given that the key local participants in these Michigan EBS and TVWS connectivity projects are public universities and libraries working with cooperatively-owned fiber backhaul and access providers and a mix of other CAIs (e.g., schools, local governments, community centers), I consider them valuable testing grounds for the economic viability, impacts and evolution of FAST PIIPS connectivity models.

In the final post in this series I’m going to briefly outline a research agenda intended to help maximize the positive impacts on connectivity and digital empowerment of these pioneering projects and similar ones in other states, including those that will be part of Microsoft’s recently announced 12-state Airband initiative.

Below are links to the other posts in this series. Feedback from readers, especially constructive criticism, is welcome.




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