OECD Study on Munis Digs Deep, Discovers Dividends

A recent large-scale cross-national study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) offers strong evidence that municipal broadband networks provide numerous benefits for communities around the world. Among the study’s major findings include evidence that municipal networks contribute to efforts aimed at improving local economic development, stimulating business productivity and innovation, and enhancing people’s quality of life.

The study's analysis of European nations is of special interest to us as European municipal networks are the only international municipal networks in the study that closely resemble U.S. municipal networks. In particular, the findings from the study’s central econometric analysis of Swedish municipal networks have direct implications for our understanding of the impact of municipal networks in the United States.

Findings from Econometric Analysis of Sweden

As the researchers note, extensive municipal broadband development across Sweden has contributed to a remarkably high level of nationwide fiber penetration, putting the country far ahead of the US in global rankings. The researchers report a series of features and benefits of Sweden’s widespread fiber penetration and aggressive municipal broadband efforts, including:

Increased rates of employment (with even greater employment increases in highly urbanized municipalities), increased business creation, and reduced car usage (also greater in the most urban cities) as fiber networks make it easier to telecommute to work and to shop for goods and services online.

Overall Economic Development Benefits: The authors cite a previous socio-economic analysis of the municipally-owned broadband network in Stockholm, Sweden showing that this network has generated about $2.5 billion (U.S. dollars) in economic returns for the city, or three times the initial investment. This includes $1.2 billion through the creation of new jobs, $800 million in new economic activity for the broadband supplier industry, $300 million saved by the City of Stockholm from lower service costs, and $300 million in increased values of public housing properties, along with additional savings.

Benefits from E-services: 80 percent of municipalities in Sweden are able to provide enhanced e-services including home care, nursing services, social services, library services, civil dialogue, and digital security alarms, enabling significant cost savings for goods and services and improved quality of life for Swedish citizens. In particular, users of home medical care reported that digitally facilitated home care give them an increased sense of independence, security, participation, and freedom of choice in their health needs.

Benefits of improved competition: The prices for Internet service over Swedish municipal networks are 23 percent to 38 percent lower than national prices. Further, prices for service over open access networks are also 25 percent lower compared to those municipal networks that have only one ISP.

Policy: Although the Treaty on European Union generally prohibits state aid out of concern that it could stifle competition and discourage private investment, the Treaty does permit state aid for public private partnerships (PPPs). Notably, the Treaty also makes exceptions on its prohibition of state aid for rural areas lagging behind the European Commission’s Digital Agenda 2020 targets which call for universal European access to 30 Megabits per second (Mbps) broadband speeds and 100 Mbps connectivity for at least 50 percent of the population by 2020.

Early Federal Stimulus: A federal bill in the year 2000 allocated $900 million to stimulate nationwide equality of access to information for Swedish citizens. The authors credit this bill with prompting a proliferation of major broadband initiatives in the ensuing years.

The Swedish Model: To be eligible for state aid, the Swedish government requires community networks to be operator-neutral (open access). Thus, most Swedish community networks are open access and 93 percent of the nation’s municipal networks have at least two ISPs offering service.

PPPs: These Swedish municipal networks are generally structured as PPPs in which a municipality or regional group of cities own a carrier-neutral infrastructure (owned by a neutral party that is NOT one of the ISPs). As the authors report, a general consensus exists among Swedish policy makers and market actors that PPPs, in combination with an open access model, serve to effectively “safeguard a competitive market on services and applications for the benefit of consumers and businesses” (p. 51).

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Additional Findings about International Municipal Networks

The study’s strongest and most consistent finding was that municipal broadband networks around the world inject competition into local telecommunications markets. According to the researchers, these enhanced competitive environments generally lead to lowered Internet service prices, increased investment by the private providers in markets with municipal initiatives, and/or increased opportunities for private ISPs to use shared infrastructure over open access networks.

An analysis of the UK offers conclusive evidence that access to fiber networks in businesses leads to increased worker productivity.

The importance of pre-existing public utilities: Community networks tend to have the most success in communities that had pre-existing public utilities for services such as water, energy, or gas before they developed their community networks.

Successful municipal networks require competent personnel, sound organizational structure: Cases of failed municipal networks tend to share a common characteristic: lack of previous organizational and financial stability in those cities. In other words, in the observed cases of some failed municipal networks, the study’s findings suggest that such failure is typically due to pre-existing deficiencies in the organizational structure and personnel in those communities, not because the networks were inherently problematic.

Citizens are willing to contribute resources/expertise to solve local broadband needs: In addition to the country's 190 municipal networks, Sweden also has around 1000 small village fiber networks that are generally operated as co-ops. The authors observed cases in these villages where the citizenry voluntarily contributed their labor or other resources, including machinery, to assist in the construction of municipal broadband networks. Some of the telecommunications companies in Sweden provide tool kits and other services to help villages collaborate to help solve their own fiber access needs.

The study offers a useful overview of municipal broadband issues in each nation studied, providing a glimpse into a variety of relevant public policies, common strategies, and other major developments in the deployment of municipal networks in the respective countries. We encourage you to check out the entire study.

Additional Notes on the Analysis of Swedish Municipal Networks

Importantly, the researchers chose Sweden for their central econometric analysis largely because its high number of municipal fiber networks offers an especially large sample set for analysis purposes. They were also careful to statistically control for potentially confounding variables in their analyses.  For example, they controlled for variables that could otherwise skew the evidence of benefits from municipal networks such as local tax rates, average yearly income per person, population age distribution, and share of foreigners and immigrants. These measures help to ensure that the observed benefits of municipal networks are actually due to the impact of municipal networks and not a product of any other secondary variables.