S&P Global Market Intelligence - May 26, 2017
Hard Data on Municipal Broadband Networks
Written by Sarah Barry James
There is a dearth of good data around municipal broadband networks, and the data that is available raises some tough questions.
A new study from University of Pennsylvania Law School Professor Christopher Yoo and co-author Timothy Pfenninger, a law student, identified 88 municipal fiber projects across the country, 20 of which report the financial results of their broadband operations separately from the results of their electric power operations. Municipal broadband networks are owned and operated by localities, often in connection with the local utility.
Yet Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, argued that Yoo's study did not present an entirely accurate or up-to-date picture of U.S. municipal networks.
"When I looked at the 20 communities that he studied — and his methodology for picking those is totally reasonable and he did not cherry pick them — I was not surprised at his results because many of those networks are either in very small communities … and the others were often in the early years of a buildout during a period of deep recession," Mitchell said.
As an example, Mitchell pointed to Electric Power Board's municipal broadband network in Chattanooga, Tenn. — one of the five networks Yoo identified as having positive cash flow but at such a low level that it would take more than 100 years to recover project costs.
In fact, without the revenue generated by the fiber-optics business, EPB estimated it would have had to raise electric rates by 7% this year.
According to Mitchell, Yoo's study captured the Chattanooga network when it was still "small and growing," but misses "what's going to happen for the rest of the life of the network, which I think is the more important part."