OneCommunity: A Bit of Background

KMOX, a station from St. Louis, recently asked what Ohio's OneCommunity did correctly in building a regional broadband network. The article is interesting for some background on OneCommunity, but the discussion of what St. Louis attempted is somewhat lacking (and the reporters appear to have little expertise in broadband).

OneCommunity is a successful nonprofit approach to expanding broadband access by working with various entities - sharing the resources of public entities as well as private carriers to the benefit of everyone. However, its results are somewhat less predictable than the admittedly more top-down approach of a local government-run initiative that can ensure everyone in a community gets a certain kind of connection. On the other hand, OneCommunity is more insulated from the fluctuations of everyday politics that can hurt or slow projects operated by a local government, depending on the structure (remember, structure is defined by rules ... and rules matter).

My impression is also that OneCommunity has been tremendously successful in securing broadband for middle mile and large institutional needs, but its approach at solving the last-mile problem has been hit-or-miss depending on the community. By lowering the cost of backhaul, the private sector may be more interested in building those last-mile connections, but residents do not get the full benefits of service from a provider that puts community needs above profits.

OneCommunity started in Cleveland with the idea of collecting spare or unused broadband capacity (often using assets after the dotcom bust) and putting it to use.

Along with a variety of other key community anchors, the network connects some 65 hospitals in all.

"We're allowing point of care treatment through remote specialists that actually allow, not only a triage of patients in the emergency room, but actually direct treatment and diagnosis on site in real time from a third-party specialist located in another institution."

OneCommunity's network is sufficiently large that these hospitals can connect directly to each other rather than each connecting to the larger Internet to send information amongst themselves. Just as in Lafayette, where all in-network connections occur at 100Mbps, OneCommunity can offer faster connections at lower rates to the hospitals for traffic that does not leave the OneCommunity domain (because the costs of sending information across other networks is larger than keeping all traffic on a network you own).

The cost savings are huge, on the order of 85% according to the article. And as OneCommunity grows, it can offer these deals to more institutions (large institutional customers typically want to exchange more data locally rather than from YouTube, for instance).

Core customers -- universities, hospitals and government institutions -- are paying OneCommunity $4.4 million this year in fees for their broadband service. Those fees sustain the existing system, while government grants and private money helps pay for new construction and expansion of the network.

The article also cites a variety of economic development wins for the region as a direct result of the network.

OneCommunity's success comes from the buy-in of major players in the community and a focus on putting community needs first.

"Our board is currently composed of 14 members, and they cut across all parts of life," Berry [Chief Operating Officer] said, "Our board has a high degree of oversight in the activities that we perform. We're open. We're transparent . Most of our contracts are, of course, in public domain. And I think the biggest thing is when you say you're going to do something, you deliver on it."

With key decision makers from the community shaping the mission of OneCommunity, the group has connected hundreds of schools, colleges, libraries, hospitals, government offices to the network.

Perhaps the most intriguing question about OneCommunity is why its success has not been duplicated elsewhere. The best answer I can identify is that OneCommunity started with a unique blend of powerful community-focused interests and grew - the proverbial snowball gathering steam as it rolls down the mountain.

Those who want to duplicate this approach elsewhere may struggle to get enough groups together to create the critical mass necessary for success. However, as public entities wise up and begin building their own networks rather than leasing from private companies, nonprofits like this may not need as many carriers and private-sector entities to participate (who may not see anything it the effort for their bottom line if the group is not aggregating enough potential customers).