For municipal broadband networks, "public-private" can spell trouble

by Michael Maranda, Wrythings

“We favor a public-private partnership approach”
August 3rd, 2007

I’ve heard some variant of this phrase for a good while now, but, what does it really mean?

Becca Vargo Daggett has often addressed the vacuity of this meme… but I think we need to be more aggressive in disentangling the motives behind this phrase.

It’s pretty clear it’s either a point of rhetoric, or the result of framing that has been used to box out certain options.

I most recently heard the phrase at the Community Media Summit convened by the Benton Foundation and the Community Media Workshop (June 15, 2007). At the Summit the Chicago Report on Digital Excellence was unveiled. Rep. Julie Hamos stood up shortly following a comment by Gordon Quinn. The summit and the report had a strong focus on the questions of Municipal Wireless and other communications infrastructure.

Gordon asked a very clear question as to the presence or lack of political will to just provide the infrastructure ourselves, as a city. (I’ll pass over the near deafening silence this was met with, though this is the crown that should most clamor for it.)

Rep. Hamos praised the vision articulated in the Digital Excellence report and cited the need for a similar bold vision and plan for the state of Illinois. She commented that the sentiment among the political establishment is a preference for public-private partnership in the field of communications/network provision, rather than direct public investment of the sort Gordon proposed.

In telecommunications and other new networks, the community, the public, the people will always pay for the network in the long run, and generally speaking, they will pay many times over. There is no getting around that. We will pay for the networks. Should we subsidize their build-out?

So, what is behind the language of the public-private partnership?

One thing is certain, public officials (and perhaps much of the public) have lost an appreciation for the meaning of public utility. Many of the entities we formerly regarded as public utilities have been deregulated, or operate with minimal regulation.

Criticism of the situation marks one as anti-business or anti-corporate. These are not strictly the same thing, but that is part of the point… the view that Business is Business is Business conflates all business interests in one frame.

We then easily succumb to the argument that we need to keep Government from competing with Business… else it will be bad for all businesses, else it will adversely affect the employment base, else these corporations may disinvest in your state or town.

I don’t buy any of it, but it appears the threats work, or they work enough to take away the courage and conviction…

Telecom and media infrastructure, including provision of Internet services is by no means a competitive market. Nor is it effectively regulated at any level. That is not to say there arent regulations in effect… no, there are, and they tend to serve as barriers to market entry more than as protection of community and consumer interests.

So, please, tell me, what is the virtue of a public-private partnership other than 1) the term partnership gives us the warm fuzzies, 2) public figures can point to projects moving forward (much ado about nothing?) … and a third false-virtue: private sector capture of lucrative contracts and markets through political influence and incumbent positioning.

There is a lot more to be said about this phrase… perhaps the most damning is that it is a catch-all and offers no hope for precision. It doesn’t articulate a clear business model, but it is used to shape the business model and ownership debate in any number of sectors. Isn’t it great to see the power of rhetorical strategy… how public discourse can be derailed away from clear business and public interest questions through vacuous and emotive concepts?

Is it any wonder our public leaders won’t stand up for pubic initiatives?

Three critical aspects of public communications & technology projects and an inconvenient truth
August 4, 2007

Whether public or private and whatever the scope, there are three critical aspects to any communications or technology project:

the ownership and business model,
the state of the technology (physics/network/system considerations), and
the purpose (or purposes).

Of course these aspects are interwoven, but each heading stands on its own, and we can determine a logical flow for project planning. We’ll need clarity on each, and anything less would be irresponsible.

Consider public communications initiatives such as municipal (or more accurately, city-wide) wireless and broadband networks as have been the focus of many cities and towns across the country, including Chicago.

The inconvenient truth about communications infrastructure (and other public technology) projects is that we’re horribly irresponsible about achieving the clarity needed in these three areas for a good outcome.

Our tendency has been to take the ownership and business model for granted (let industry do it!), to accept the technology on offer by the vendors, and to build a constituency for the network among different interest groups with claims that the network will meet their needs and desires.

We’re doing this bass-ackwards, we’re costing the people, the public, a lot of money (in aggregate, and individually), and we aren’t getting the reliability and functionality we should be getting from these networks.

Network purpose (or purposes) and character should be the logical driver of the process. Purpose should drive technology choice and together these should map out the options for ownership and business model.

We shouldn’t accept any limitation on the ownership/business model options without a deep and clear understanding of the network purpose and the sort of reliability, functionality and accountability that purpose demands. Too much effort is spent in debates and lobbying promulgated by the usual suspects, the purveyors of networks. Unchecked, each vendor’s biased agenda with respect to business model and ready-technology warps public deliberation.

All too often, American cities have closed the doors to viable ownership models as a result of lobbying and tactical rhetoric. To state the case more strongly: they do so at great cost to the public and to the commonweal; they do not serve our interests well, they do not proceed with clarity of public purpose.

What are the ownership models? We can build, buy, or rent. If we take business as our paradigmatic example, big businesses tend to build and buy their own networks whenever they can. Doesn’t it make as much sense for communities and for local governments to do likewise?

I’ve spent a lot of time arguing which of the three aspects should drive the other, and why the business-ownership model should not drive the process. Exploring the technology and the purposes of the network are a lot more work, but that is where we should be directing our attention.

I’ll only briefly mention that the range of technology options is more constrained by a policy regime then it is by the physics and network design.

The definition of network purposes is left as an exercise for your community.

article originally published at

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey