According to the New York Times, “Broadband service is no longer a luxury. It has become a basic part of the infrastructure of education and democracy.” For that reason, many people have argued for, and some cities have moved toward, making high-speed Internet service similar to a basic public necessity, such as water, gas or electricity.

But at 22 percent of broadband penetration per 100 inhabitants, the United States ranks only 15th in the world, down from 12th place in 2005, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Many Americans currently do not subscribe to broadband at home, in part, because service does not reach them or is unaffordable.

The problem, not surprisingly, is how to pay for municipal broadband networks. As of August 2007, more than 400 U.S. cities and counties were running municipal broadband networks, were deploying networks or had issued public tenders, according to Muniwireless.com.

But since then, there have been some serious bumps in the development of such networks, especially in big cities. In February 2008, a “muni wireless” partnership between the city of Philadelphia and the Atlanta-based EarthLink crumbled, halting the implementation of the largest municipal Wi-Fi grid in the country. It was to have stretched access over 135 square miles to bring free or low-cost service to all Philadelphians, especially the poor. EarthLink had effectively cornered the market on the efforts of larger cities to build municipal broadband networks, but it abandoned the project and the market as a whole due to rising costs and profitability concerns.

With the collapse of the Philadelphia project also went the plans of Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and 10 other major cities in addition to dozens of smaller towns. The municipalities had all used similar business models and now appear to be in a similar predicament with EarthLink and other service providers. However, that does not mean municipal networks are dead.

Historic issues

Consider the words of Christopher -Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in a March 2, 2008, Eureka Reporter editorial: “Broadband may be comparatively new, but these difficult questions of infrastructure have been with us for far longer. One hundred years ago, communities were told electricity was too complicated for municipal meddling and they should wait for private companies to electrify them. Thousands of communities realized that a community cannot wait for essential infrastructure. They accepted responsibility for their future and wired their towns. How little has changed since then.”

Most muni broadband watchers are now looking at Minneapolis, which has just completed a network based on a business model that many believe will avoid the financial risks of the Philadelphia/EarthLink model.

In Minneapolis, service provider U.S. Internet agreed to build the network as long as the city committed to becoming an “anchor tenant” by subscribing for a minimum number of city workers, such as building inspectors, meter readers, police officers and firefighters. As an anchor tenant, the city accounts for more than $1 million per year, which provides stability for the company during the early stages of implementation. The city also has provided space in city buildings for infrastructure hardware.

Despite the city’s upfront costs, partially completed municipal network quickly demonstrated its value by performing data communications services for first responders to the 2007 interstate highway bridge collapse when the city’s cellular service failed to deliver.

Keep pushing municipal Wi-Fi

So keep looking for municipal broadband networks projects in U.S. communities and cities. The New York Times is not a solo voice when it proclaimed, “Even in these tough economic times, cities should keep pushing municipal [Wi-Fi] and looking for partners and plans that can make it a reality.”

When the marketplace, governmental officials and social advocates eventually work out what municipal networks will look like and who will pay for them, that will mean a lot of fiber and copper in, under and through a lot of ducts, streets and buildings.

The Internet service providers and their partners of that day likely will perform plenty of that work. But plenty more of that work just as likely will be awarded to local electrical contractors by either those big industry players who do not wish to do the work with their own crews, or by the municipalities that will award the work directly to electrical contractors.

Electrical contractors across the country may want to keep attuned to the development of this market, as business opportunities in one form or another likely will come with it, be that sooner or later. Further information is available from sources such as muniwireless.com, blandinfoundation.org and calink.ca.gov. You also can read this month’s feature on the topic, written by Debbie McClung. Find the story on page 58.

MUNYAN is a freelance writer in the Kansas City, Kan., area, specializing in business writing and telecommunications. He can be reached at www.russwrites.com.