10 Years Later - Tacoma and LaGrange

In January 2001, or about 1 million years ago in tech time, Site Selection Online published "Wired Cities: Working-Class Communities Build Next Frontier of High-Speed Connectivity". I found it years ago when reading up on the Click! network in Tacoma, Washington.

I recently stumbled across it again and thought it might be interesting to evaluate its claims after a decade (or close to it) had passed.

The lead of the article discusses Tacoma its relationship to Seattle. Tacoma had extremely poor connectivity from the private sector and its public power utility decided to build an HFC network to extend broadband to everyone in the community. Tacoma's Mayor notes that over 100 companies poured in after the community solved its own broadband problems - generating some 700 jobs in 18 months.

Fast forward to today, and this paragraph:

As a result, the next frontier of information companies isn't being confined to the Silicon Valleys of the world. It's taking root where you might least expect it: in places like Tacoma, LaGrange, Ga., and Blacksburg, Va.. And in most cases, it's government taking the lead, beating business to the punch by stringing fiber and building networks in working-class communities that most bottom-line corporations would otherwise ignore.

The principle of self-reliance is timeless. And we see the same idea in news articles today: local governments bringing broadband to areas the private sector cannot. In 2010, the fastest and more affordable broadband networks in the US are not in Silicon Valley -- they are in Lafayette, Chattanooga, Wilson, Utah, and other places where the community decided to prioritize big broadband.

Because of the competition in Tacoma, prices for telecom have remained lower than in nearby Seattle - as I quoted a Tacoma resident previously:

I have Comcast in Tacoma and all I know is since there is competition down here Comcast is about half the cost as it is in Seattle. They give you a rate good for a year. When your year is up you call up and just say Click! and bam back down you go. A friend in Seattle once called Comcast with both of our bills with similar service and mentioned my price and they said I must live in Tacoma and they wouldn't match the price.

Seattle continues to be plagued with traffic jams, one of the factors that had previously led some businesses to relocate to Tacoma when the bandwidth had become available. Now, Seattle has asked Tacoma for broadband advice on building a network.

In Georgia, LaGrange was noted by Site Selection for its fiber-to-the-business infrastructure (which helped it win the "Intelligent City of the Year" award. A Wired article noted:

"The city could have died when its textile industry faded. But instead they built fiber-optic networks, and offer(ed) low-cost broadband services to local businesses and the town's citizens. They should be commended. Too many small towns simply build an industrial park and offer relocation assistance to lure companies in. LaGrange offers all of that, and sophisticated Internet infrastructure. They understood that big bandwidth wins business for small cities."

Communities similarly afflicted by the loss of textiles and tobacco have used public investments to build impressive broadband networks, reversing their decline -- most notably Bristol and Danville in Virginia and Wilson in North Carolina.

Back in 2001, LaGrange had also snagged headlines with an experiment - offering free Internet access to everyone in the City via a TV-web interface. These are the kind of experiments communities are free to do when they control the infrastructure.

Once again, the trends we see today have changed little over the previous ten years - quoting again from the Site Selection article:

Like most rural towns its size, LaGrange faced a choice in the early 1990s: either build this network itself or get bypassed by the New Economy. "The big telecom companies in Atlanta made a business decision not to provide broadband service here," says Jeff Lukken, mayor of LaGrange and operator of the local Chevrolet dealership. "We approached BellSouth about partnering with them to build such a network, and they said no."

According to Martin Gidron, managing editor of the UT Digest in Silver Spring, Md., LaGrange is far from alone. "Generally, the small towns around America tend not to be able to get the broadband networks from the big companies," he says. "But for the towns it's a matter of economic development and economic survival. The tier-one cities are already pretty well served, so the movement now is toward second- and third-tier markets."

The Site Selection article also discusses Virginia's strategy for expanding broadband access:

Virginia also deregulated its power industry last year -- a move Upson says will encourage companies like Virginia Power to accelerate the growth of broadband services throughout the state. "Unlike some other states, we rely completely on private networks and encourage the building of those," he adds. "Virginia Link is the answer for businesses. There has to be that private-sector initiative."

How well did that work out? Virginia's hopes for the private sector to build the infrastructure has hardly distinguished the state. Over the last ten years, investments in next-generation networks have come from the public sector where they are able as Virginia has since preempted local authority to duplicate the successes of BVU in Bristol. One wonders if another ten years have to pass before the state legislature understands the private sector has no interest in building the networks Virginians need to be competitive in the modern economy.

Too often we fail to look back and see what lessons we can learn. Communities that help themselves tend to succeed whereas those dependent on absentee businesses tend to suffer.