City Commission elections, small business, and Lawrence municipal broadband

Isn't it time you had the chat with your city commisioner about what they can do?

A few weeks ago, I received the following invitation:

On behalf of the City of Lawrence, I wish to invite you to an important meeting to be held on Thursday concerning current technology infrastructure in Lawrence and your current and future technology needs related to broadband access. The City of Lawrence has engaged CTC Technology & Energy, a national consulting firm currently working on the State of Kansas Broadband Plan, to prepare a report for the City Commission that documents current technology infrastructure in the community, documents needs and lists a number of possible steps the City could take to improve technology infrastructure and access to broadband for Lawrence institutions, businesses, and residents.

Obviously I was extremely interested!

Most of the people in the meeting were representing big businesses and large employers so I was actually a bit out of place being a small business owner who generally works with small businesses (our target market for computer repair is five computers or less). The consultant said she’ll deliver a report to the City Commission sometime in April. Based on the questions asked and some of the answers given I made a few interesting observations (standard disclaimers apply such as these are only my observations and interpretations)

1) With Google Fiber Internet right down I-70, some people are concerned about the “attractive nuisance” of fast Internet so close to Lawrence

2) Compared to other cities, Lawrence pays as much as five times the normal market price of business class internet and generally receives less quality and reliability (this is due to lack of competition compared to other cities)

3) Existing businesses have struggled with operations due to unreliable internet and have lost opportunities due to poor internet quality

Lawrence, like many other cities, already has an existing infrastructure in town for high speed data lines (much like the pipes that run the sewers or the streets we drive our cars on). Municipal broadband isn’t new and in fact is an established public-private partnership that varies around the country from towns simply giving companies access all the way to a city becoming an full-fledged Internet Service provider. The FCC wants every state to have a gigabit city and it’s going to require cities to intiate this as the private sector doesn’t have the incentives to do so. Lawrence already works with Wicked Broadband (formerly Freenet/Community Wireless communications) on some issues, but could expand that partnership or open it to others. I know I’ve asked Wicked Broadband about fiber to my home and they said it would be possible if they were able to work closer with the city (and it might cost about $1,000 which I would gladly pay!)

The consultant indicated her suggestions (again disclaimers – this is only my opinion) were going to be focused on attracting and keeping larger employers by driving down the price and increasing the quality of connections. I briefly mentioned concerns that this could cause price increases for smaller customers and I was greeted with either blank stares or statements that bigger customers get bigger discounts. This is disappointing.

Working with primarily small office, home office and residential customers I firmly believe they are as important (and I’d argue more important) than big businesses to this community. The facts here and here back me up on this (Hat tip to Will Katz and KUSBC for these stats)

1) 75.6% of Kansas businesses are non-employers (this means they are sole proprietors/independent biz owners)
2) Nationally, 64% of net new private-sector jobs come from small business
3) Nationally, 52% of small businesses are home-based

What I see from this information is that reliable quality internet is vital to the Lawrence economy and it needs to be equal (or frankly better) for smaller businesses in town. With my work at Think Big Partners and Social Media Club of Kansas City, I’ve learned the incredible and vital importance of entrepreneurship. Indeed, Google’s primary focus is on growing small business with such projects as Startup Village. The big businesses of tomorrow are the small businesses of today. The Lawrence City Commission needs to recognize that Google Fiber’s attractiveness isn’t just the speed and quality but the democratization of resources.

Along with a decision about municipal broadband, the city will also approve the assignment of Knology’s (formerly Sunflower Broadband’s) cable franchise to Wide Open West (WOW). The City of Lawrence is the franchise authority and as seen in other cities the franchise authority has power to compel a franchisee to correct problems and serve the public interest. I’d love to see this next City Commission use the franchise authority to address the extensive service service problems that we’ve been plagued with in Lawrence. Now that WOW call centers aren’t in Lawrence, the customer service reps don’t seem to know the problems our city has and it frustrates our customers. The city also could possibly require WOW to keep the email addresses going. If WOW is allowed to operate in Lawrence, I’d like to see them be required to give us at least some of the same levels of service we loved with Sunflower Broadband.

While I generally stay out of politics and this isn’t meant to endorse or admonish any candidate, broadband issues are extremely important to the Lawrence economy, and are not being discussed much from what I can tell. It’s time to ask the candidates about the future of Internet in Lawrence because they most likely will be deciding on it! I invite you to give your thoughts in the comments and I especially invite candidates to comment!

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