What is a Muni Network? Here are the Basics.

munibroadband
munibroadband
​​​​​​​A user surfs the Internet at a free Wi-Fi hotspot provided by the City of New York. Getty Images.

If you were to ask 100 people to define a network, you might get 101 responses. That’s because the word “network” has permeated nearly every professional and academic sector, and takes on a different meaning in each one. Some people hear it and they think of their professional colleagues. Others might think of the highly-acclaimed movie about Facebook, The Social Network. While the latter of those two associations is closest to the subject at hand, this blog (the second in our Muni Broadband 101 series) deals with neither.

In the telecom universe, the term network refers to the platform by which we, as users, access the world-wide web. It is simplest to think of a network as a group of computers connected by telephone lines, cable lines, or radio waves. The term broadband is shorthand for broad bandwidth and references the speed and capacity of the platform.

Broadband service is provided to the public in two ways. The most common is by private companies, such as Verizon, Comcast and Cox, which are branded in industry circles as CSPs (communications service providers). This private network access is typically offered to consumers in tri-partite package form along with cable tv and telephone service, a practice that is referred to as bundling. However, it is acknowledged that CSPs don’t always provide broadband service to all parts of the community.  This is where municipal networks come in.

Municipal (muni) networks (also referred to as community networks) are those that are built out and run by and within the bounds of a city or region. This includes the deployment of Wi-Fi or fiber technologies that are managed in a number of different ways, but always with some involvement from municipal government. And the services from municipal networks can range from connecting public institutions to commercial services to households, like in the case of Bristol, Va., which offers residential broadband speed of up to 1Gbps.

We gauge a broadband network’s quality in terms of the successful, speedy delivery of information “packets” (email, streaming video, etc.), and the amount of traffic it can handle. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the official definition of high speed internet service is 4 Mbps or more. While this has reigned as the government’s definition for high speed broadband for some time, it might not cut it these days with new demands on networks like streaming video and other applications that use a lot of bandwidth. The FCC has considered updating that definition to acknowledge changes in the way we use the internet.

Muni broadband projects are undertaken by cities for a number of reasons, most of which are related to one of internet’s three As: availability, affordability, and adoption. These three words encompass most of the social equity discussions related to internet. In some cases, cities attempt to bolster their economies with the provision of high-speed service that will attract new businesses. The City of Santa Monica, Calif. built a fiber network which has lowered costs for telecommunications. In addition to the economic benefits of retaining existing and attracting new businesses, their network allows for greater engagement with the community through online services and information.

In other cases, cities build out muni networks because they want reliable, affordable internet access for their residents (some Americans still don’t have it). The Town of Mansfield, Conn. provides free wireless Internet access in public school buildings as well as in most of the indoor and outdoor areas of the Mansfield Public Library, Community Center, Senior Center and Town Hall. This allows those who cannot afford access at home an opportunity to get online.

While some muni networks are managed solely by municipal government, similarly to public utilities, others are funded and managed via public-private partnerships. For instance, Lit San Leandro is a public-private partnership between the City of San Leandro and San Leandro Dark Fiber LLC. Lit San Leandro owns and operates the switch and routing facilities that provides high-speed Internet service and as a result is bringing tech start-ups and entrepreneurs to the community. This allows entrepreneurs to advertise and sell their products and services online and compete with much larger businesses on a level playing field.

Muni broadband networks have the potential to empower citizens by increasing civic participation, facilitating learning, and strengthening neighborhood businesses. They help to foster stronger economies while underscoring the notions of democracy that we all hold dear. And most importantly, muni networks, with all of their different governance models (public, public-private), can work in all cities, as their flexibility allows communities to determine what it is that they want and need for their futures.

About the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

Principal Associate, Urban Innovation