Government Technology, January 8, 2016
Big cities plan for growth because they have to, but when smaller cities do it, a world of opportunities opens up. Shawnee, Kan., a city of about 60,000 people just outside of Kansas City, is reaping the benefits of a fiber master plan that dates back more than a decade. Creative partnerships and modest annual investments provide the city with a broadband network that supports schools and businesses, enables potential upgrades to cutting-edge technologies, and allows opportunities for continued growth.
After partnering with a local broadband provider known in 2005 as SureWest (now called Consolidated Communications), the city began building a private network to power its business applications. When Google selected Kansas City as its first Fiber City in 2011, Shawnee saw an opportunity to expand its network further. In 2014, the city continued building, adding an additional four miles of inner-city fiber. Shawnee is now partnering with Unite Private Networks to add nine additional miles of fiber to connect local schools, and city administrators say their network will make it possible to adopt new traffic management and surveillance systems if they so desire.
Shawnee’s blueprint for broadband was what officials call their Fiber Optic Master Plan, a long-term strategy that established how the city would pay for the upgrades and prevent management from losing focus over the years. Fiber master plans have historically proven essential to the success of many cities’ networks, said Chris Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
“A master plan shows that a community is thinking about the long term,” Mitchell said. “That’s important because if you want to build a fiber network across the city tomorrow, it’s very expensive. But if you want to build it over 15 years as part of other investments, it can cost effectively nothing or even negative dollars in the sense that over time it can start generating revenue by being able to lease parts of it or just costing far less than the alternative would have.”
That’s what Shawnee did. The city set aside between $75,000 and $100,000 each of the past 15 years, which amounts to about a $1 million investment thus far. Non-compete clauses in the city’s agreements with Google and Consolidated Communications allowed expansion at the lowest possible costs. But buildouts enabled by conditional partnerships have an obvious downside, Mitchell said.
“That gives a city more ability to have public savings in the future, but it doesn’t allow them to really encourage economic development and it doesn’t encourage them to engage in a kind of partnerships that would bring competition to the market,” he said. “But if you have a local government that just doesn’t have the money to do it any other way, it’s a great way of connecting libraries and schools.”