By Jen Kinney.
Municipal broadband has become a key issue among those who believe internet access is increasingly central to individuals’ and cities’ prosperity. “Access to the Internet is today the modern equivalent to access to railroads, electricity, highways and telephony in previous eras,” reads a statement in support of public broadband, put out last year by a trade group that represents Amazon, Google, Netflix and others among the Internet’s largest forces. Developing such networks can be prohibitively expensive, however, so more and more municipalities are turning to public-private partnerships to finance and build them. A new report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) takes a look at what makes those deals successful — and what causes them to fail.
First though, the report, “Successful Strategies for Broadband Public-Private Partnerships,” takes pains to define what does and doesn’t count as a P3 deal when it comes to broadband. According to the ILSR, both the public and private entities need to have skin in the game for the arrangement to be a true partnership. In other words, both need to take on some level of risk. Thus, fully public systems — like those in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Wilson, North Carolina — don’t count.
And the ILSR identifies three other types of deals that fall short of a true partnership, what they call “public-private cooperation” instead. One type, private-led investment with public support, is exemplified by Google Fiber. In this approach, municipal governments streamline permits or lower other barriers to private entities expanding internet access. The private company designs, controls and operates the network entirely, independent of public oversight.