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Growing the Internet 27 January 2017

Fiber & Wireless – Stronger Together for Community Broadband

Craig Settles
By Craig SettlesIndustry Analyst

Google in June stunned some in the broadband world by acquiring wireless provider Webpass and “momentarily” exiting the fiber stage. Hybrid wired/wireless networks became the Next Big Thing – for a month. But what if hybrid infrastructure is the key that unlocks the doors to the next level of community broadband success?

My new report, “ Fiber & Wireless – Stronger Together for Community Broadband“, makes a business case for hybrid infrastructure by assessing community broadband in a historical context, as well as the capabilities of today’s fiber and wireless. I’ve included past and current projects since they can teach us how to get more value from broadband technologies that communities use.

Wireless in broadband has been deified, vilified, misunderstood, hyped to holy heaven, and in some circles, just plain ignored. To many, fiber can do no wrong, only become faster. Then came gig fiber. No, wait, now there’s gig wireless. We need a reality check!! We’re too fixated on speeds and feeds, bits and bytes.

Interviews and case stories in this report steer readers toward new positions on needs analysis, RFPs, and public private partnerships. They question why we get distracted with speed issues rather than focusing on the value of unlimited data. It’s important to ask how we can reconcile hype with the realities of infrastructure, and why we should never let technology become the tail that wags the dog.

Sure, Philadelphia’s declaration to build a citywide Wi-Fi network made headline news in 2004. But community broadband was almost derailed by the dozens of cities using an “RFPs-by-rote” tactic in which their RFPs heavily cut-and-pasted from the first cities that asked for free networks. Today, RFPs don’t ask providers for freebies, yet a lot impose conditions that can negatively impact providers’ financials. So don’t be surprised if fewer providers respond than expected.

In Virginia, for example, the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) has turned the shopping-for-broadband process on its ear. Questions that lead to RFPs driven by conventional wisdom are replaced by 1) what are the various constituencies’ needs, 2) what are the communities willing to bring to the table and 3) what solutions are providers offering that they are willing to build?

Need determines technology, not the reverse. Some iteration of fiber or wireless can meet most of our broadband needs if you have enough talent with planning, skills, creativity, and insight. Money is the wild card, but talented community stakeholders can lead you to money more often than not.

It’s time to talk about hybrids because the technologies are stronger together when tackling the opportunities and challenges of community broadband. Read my report today!

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Note from Jane Coffin, Director, Development Strategy at the Internet Society: This blog post is part of a series of posts from our teams working across countries and regions to help connect the unconnected.  We will be bringing you stories and issue snapshots throughout the year.  Enjoy this blog post from Craig Settles and please send us suggestions for content you would like to see and issues you want to learn more about. 

Editorial note: an earlier version of this post was published on Craig Settles site and is published here with his permission.

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Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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