Want a Gig? Ask Consultants the Right Questions

For years, we have been frustrated at the tendency of communities and consultants to view municipal fiber networks as a binary decision. Should we or shouldn't we? Should they or shouldn't they? At its worst, it is framed with the most expensive approach - borrowing for a citywide all-at-once approach.

Consider this framing by a recent story in a Portland, Oregon suburb from the Oregonian:

Hillsboro officials have heard back from the consultant they hired to examine the feasibility of building a municipal fiber network that would bring high-speed, lower-cost Internet service to city residents.

The answer? Don't do it.

Stories like this make my blood boil. It is the absolute wrong question. But to delve into it, I want to abstract away from any specific consultants or approaches. This is not a failing of a single consultant, but something we have seen to various degrees from many.

Jumping ahead, the correct approach is to develop a description of the problems a community faces or wants to solve relating to Internet access. Then, examine a variety of approaches to pick the best option rather than only evaluating the single most expensive option.

Some consultants are very happy to bid a project, answer a narrow question, and then let the community go on its perhaps puzzled way. They have the list of phone poll questions, the spreadsheet full of assumptions, and final feasibility report template all ready for the next community. (We do not offer consulting services.)

Other consultants go out of their way to educate, guide, and otherwise help the community develop and achieve its objectives. These consultants may appear to cost a bit more, but actually can be much more cost effective. Some consultants bid the bare minimum, planning to charge extra later for supposedly supplemental information that is actually essential for continuing the process.

A consultant should be a guide to achieving objectives rather than simply evaluating a single, likely over-simplified question. It all starts with what questions a community asks. After doing some initial research (possibly perusing our Community Connectivity Toolkit), community leaders may be tempted to ask a consultant whether they should build a citywide municipal fiber network.

This is not recommended. Instead, we recommend developing a vision (discussed in our Santa Monica City Net case study).

What is the primary problem that needs to be solved? Hint: It isn't "how do we get a gig??" Be more specific. Common problems include poor business service availability that discourages economic development opportunities, slow connectivity, high prices (for residents or businesses or both), poor reliability, lack of access for historically marginalized populations etc.

Identifying specific problems is important because the preferred solutions for encouraging economic development will be different from those focusing on connecting low-income neighborhoods.

Having established the problems, the vision needs a sense of the opportunities from policy options. Here it is important to remember that the same technology deployed by different entities will create different opportunities. If Chattanooga had decided to beg Verizon for FiOS rather than building their own network, they wouldn't have created thousands of jobs and wouldn't have one of the best networks in the nation today. But both FiOS and Chattanooga's fiber network are technically similar. A FTTH network owned by a massive telco can have dramatically different outcomes than a FTTH network owned by a community. The tradeoff is the responsibility of running the system, likely over decades.

After establishing the problems and opportunities, the consultant should be charged with recommending paths to achieve the vision. "No" is not acceptable answer. An acceptable answer is an analysis that explains how the community can trade off cost, time, risks, and benefits. That is to say a community may decide to take greater risks in anticipation of greater benefits by borrowing significantly to rapidly build a citywide network. Or a community may decide to minimize risk with incremental investments over many years to expand conduit and fiber in the first phases of a long term plan. There are many permutations.

In the year 2015, municipal fiber is not a yes/no question. The models are many and varied - the best question is what does the community need and how motivated it is to take meaningful action.

Had Hillsboro taken this path, they would have a variety of options to discuss to solve the problems with connectivity that were demonstrated by the study. But instead, they have a document that only examined high risk, high cost approaches and found the recommended project to be "marginally viable."

If I were an elected official there, I would be examining what low cost incremental strategies could improve access to the Internet locally.

As a final thought, this is not just a problem with consultants. There are definitely elected officials who are privately happy to hear that a project is not feasible because it gives them cover to take no action. If they were already hesitant to upset power cable and telephone companies, they then have a document that "proves" the costs are too great to take any action.