Many small communities across the country struggle to bring advanced broadband to their residents. What they lack in size, they often make up with diversity of their economies, populations, geography, and technology providers. Public-private partnerships (PPP) can help local government and businesses pool their resources and technical expertise to deliver cutting-edge services to citizens.
Recently, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s BroadbandUSA program and the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology hosted the Virginia Broadband Summit – Partnerships for Connecting the Commonwealth to learn from smaller Virginia communities how they used PPPs to identify models that other communities can study to bring broadband to their areas. The Summit highlighted the efforts of four counties:
- Bland County, Virginia, home to 6,800 residents, is located in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. The tiny mountainous county with only 18 people per square mile did not appeal to most fiber-based service providers. Supported by a $50,000 planning grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and a $192,000 infrastructure grant, Bland County started to build towers and formed a partnership with Gigabeam Networks to deploy a fixed wireless solution. Critical to the project’s success is the willingness of local residents to lease their land to enable cell tower installations. The county owned and managed towers offer open access any provider. A ridge tower can cover miles; one on a barn may extend service to only a dozen nearby residents.
- With a population of almost 40,000, Prince George County, located southeast of Richmond, has a mix of metro and rural areas, but the rural areas have only 50-100 people per square mile, making them less attractive to broadband providers. After considering wireless solutions, the county found a common purpose with Prince George Electric Cooperative (PGEC). The electric co-op needed to deploy fiber between its electric substations, but they set up a separate subsidiary, PGEC Enterprises, to offer broadband services. The county issued a $1 million dollar taxable bond and entered a partnership to deploy fiber throughout select areas of the county. The partnership has connected 268 homes within its first year, and plans to reach 500 households over the next four years. Although the county works closely with PGEC Enterprises, other providers can seek to use PGEC poles to provide service.
- Accomack and Northampton Counties are good examples of how to overcome geographic hurdles to attracting broadband service providers. Both counties make up the Eastern Shore peninsula, but with the Chesapeake Bay to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and Maryland counties to the north, the counties are somewhat isolated. To bring broadband to this “island,” the two counties collaborated to create an independent, not-for-profit public authority, the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority (ESVBA). Combining local start-up funding from each county, a Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant, and investment from NASA, which maintains space launch facilities in Accomack County, construction on fiber backhaul started in 2007. Today, ESVBA has deployed almost 320 miles of fiber and provides broadband to 350 schools, business, and other buildings. ESVBA is an open access network that supports other service providers.
These three examples show the diversity of approaches smaller jurisdictions can pursue to create partnerships with local technology providers. Where fiber is not feasible, significant coverage can be obtained through fixed wireless deployments. And coverage can be driven by the enthusiasm of local residents and their willingness to lease their land for equipment. The examples further highlight the importance of creative funding, local investment, and strategic grant funding.
Tellingly, each of the three jurisdictions ensured that the platforms they deployed were open to other providers. Perhaps the most important aspect of a PPP is the partnership – the best performing PPPs are built on mutually beneficial agreements where both parties contribute and benefit – and for broadband – where people and businesses get better, faster broadband service.
NTIA’s BroadbandUSA technical assistance team can help you think about how to plan, prepare and attract partners to improve broadband in your community. If you would like to work with our staff, please fill out a quick survey. You may also want to check out the BroadbandUSA: An introduction to effective public-private partnerships for broadband investments. Learn more about BroadbandUSA events and resources on our website.