Cities Move Toward Owning Broadband Networks

City governments are looking to build their own broadband networks in order to have the infrastructure in place for the upgrade to 5G technology.

“We’re moving to a model where we want to build and own our own network,” said Samir Saini, IT commissioner of the City of Atlanta.

Atlanta is interested in having its own network in order to build a framework for its Internet of Things (IoT) initiatives, such as connecting smart streetlights to the Internet to ease the flow of traffic.

“That’s the reality of the world we live in today, governments own networks,” said Mike Zeto, general manager of smart cities for AT&T.

Carriers like AT&T focus on the services they provide as well as the networks in order to make money.

“We had to not only be a communications provider but we had to become a software company, a technology company,” Zeto said. “We’re trying to look at unique and creative ways to move up the stack.”

The cities that create roadblocks to installing Internet infrastructure will have a hard time getting 5G technology because carriers will focus on the cities that are ready first, and they might not come back to the cities that aren’t, according to Jonathan Adelstein, chief executive officer of the Wireless Infrastructure Association.

“It’s very difficult to build this out and there’s not enough capital to go around,” Adelstein said. “Those cities will not become smart.”

He said $35 billion is being invested in infrastructure to enable smart cities.

“We need to welcome them in,” Adelstein said. “If we don’t streamline the process it won’t happen fast enough and all of these applications we talk about today won’t be possible.”

Saini suggested that if cities and carriers are planning to install fiber in the same locations, they could partner in that initiative and share the costs. Atlanta voters passed a $250 million infrastructure bond that allotted some money to use fiber to connect traffic signals.

“How about we connect everything?” Saini said. Instead of connecting a few traffic signals, the Atlanta government is working on syncing all of the traffic lights. “We got lucky to build this opportunity to leverage it.”

For cities that don’t have the funding to build their network infrastructure, public and private partnership might be necessary, according to Saini.

“We need to start looking at this regionally like we do economically,” Zeto said. “You need to start with a baseline strategy.”

In order to convince city councils of the necessity of broadband networks, Saini said to talk about the rising costs on networks.

“It starts with not talking tech,” Saini said. “You have to bring it up a notch and really focus on the business value.”

Saini said that if the prices of privately owned networks increase, then it will make sense to the city council to build a publicly owned network.

“You need to talk about what it enables, not what it is,” Adelstein said. “The network is boring.”

Adelstein used the example that during 9/11, New York City didn’t have a network in place to communicate with first responders who were volunteering throughout Ground Zero. Although the technology has upgraded and changed, most cities still don’t have an adequate capability to communicate with first responders.

Adelstein said that technology experts should use real-life problems like that of first responder communication abilities to convince city councils that building network infrastructure should be a priority.

“It’s disgraceful after 9/11 that we’re still doing that,” Adelstein said. “Years later–too late–we’re getting there.”

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