Top 5 Challenges for Municipal Broadband

Municipal broadband is internet access that is either fully or partially operated by local governments. With a primary goal of serving the public good, municipal broadband promises access for more people, in more places, at high speeds, and low prices. Looking forward several years, municipal broadband could very well be critical in bridging the digital divide.

However, municipal broadband has met many headwinds in past decades, even while private broadband continues to flourish. Despite these challenges, the tide may be shifting. For example, the November 2021 infrastructure bill could be the much needed catalyst for municipal broadband. Furthermore, 5G technology could be another catalyst, leveraging wireless instead of fiber for the last mile. This post highlights not only the current challenges of deploying municipal broadband, but also recommendations on overcoming them.

Challenge #1: Legislation

As of November 2021, there are still 18 states with legislation against municipal broadband. Additionally, there are another 5 states with restrictive measures that make it unnecessarily difficult to deploy municipal broadband. While there continues to be efforts against these monopolistic measures to limit competition, the tide seems to be shifting. Part of the driving force is due to the Covid pandemic, which has further exacerbated the digital divide.

Even with these recent catalysts, it could take time before restrictions are alleviated. As we’ll expand on below, incumbent internet service providers have already spent a ton of capital on physical cables and fiber lines. Whether we agree or not, it is understandable why they wish to protect their investments and future revenue streams.

Start with small locations in greenlighted states. As you pilot and learn, prepare a plan for additional greenlighted states.

Challenge #2: Capital

Large projects often require upfront costs just to get started. Broadband infrastructure is indeed a massive undertaking, requiring people and planning before the project can even be approved. However, the latest infrastructure bill with a proposed $65B allocation for broadband could help in a significant way.

A recommendation is to start with a pilot project to gain experience and prove viability. This reduces initial overhead and can demonstrate scalability for future expansion. And to increase viability of receiving grants, always start with RF planning and analysis. Airwaive provides a free RF network planning software, which also links with our automated site acquisition feature.

Start with RF planning to assess how much capital is needed. Document this planning & analysis to receive government grants.

Challenge #3: Competition

Aside from legal challenges, incumbent internet service providers present the next largest hurdle. Tying this back to the legislation challenge, these incumbents are often the ones lobbying against municipal broadband. Most have made significant investments in physical infrastructure, including wiring the last mile to homes. Understandably, these private ISPs aim to maximize their profits, even at the expense of the public good.

Although these incumbents are by definition competitors, a recommendation is to view them as coopetition – part cooperation, part competition. Naturally, there are lower profit or even unprofitable customer segments they may not wish to serve. As a starting point, collaborate with them to identify and reach these customers. If you’re able to tackle these challenges with innovative technology, future expansion will be much easier.

Collaborate with competitors by serving customer segments that they deliberately avoid due to little to no profitability.

Challenge #4: Technical

Traditional WiFi and 4G technologies are no longer ideal due to requirements for enhanced security and data rates. For example, the latest infrastructure bill requires those receiving grants to provide a minimum of 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds. Therefore, from technology to equipment selection, expertise in small cell networks is critical to the success of municipal broadband projects. This technology shift also results in much higher density of equipment, further increasing the complexity of planning, site acquisition, and deployment.

With the latest development in 5G technology, municipalities will need to have in-house wireless specialists and/or collaborate with industry partners, especially those with 5G and small cell experience. Furthermore, network planning and simulation will be more important than ever due to tradeoffs between transmission frequency and range.

Hire and/or partner with 5G experts, especially those with small cell experience. As always, start with RF planning and simulations.

Challenge #5: Time To Market

As the equipment density increases dramatically, the ability to achieve project deadlines becomes significantly more difficult. Most notably, site acquisition for wireless equipment was already a bottleneck in 4G deployment, often leading to missed deadlines and budgets. With 5G technology, the problem is exacerbated due to a much higher density of sites required to cover the same footprint.

The traditional process of site acquisition is obsolete. Whether it’s knocking on doors or negotiating one-on-one with potential hosts, both time-to-market and budgets are at risk. This challenge can be overcome with innovative solutions such as Airwaive, which has a growing marketplace with 4M+ host locations. Furthermore, most of these locations have fiber backhauls in place.

Challenge the status quo with innovative solutions, including RF planning and automated site acquisition tools to save time & costs.

The Opportunity

Despite these challenges, the rising tide for municipal broadband is finally here. From the infrastructure bill to 5G technology to automated site acquisition, there’s significant tailwind for launching massive wireless networks. So no matter what phase you’re in – whether it’s brainstorming, network planning, site acquisition, or deployment – Airwaive is here to help. Feel free to ask questions in our recently launched forums. Or if you prefer, click the button below to schedule a demo with our team of wireless broadband experts.

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