ISE Columnist Greg Whelan

What Is Municipal Broadband?

Municipal Broadband is a term in common usage usually denoting a city government’s involvement in the local Last Mile network infrastructure. But what is Municipal Broadband? Is it merely Internet Access as a city service — or is it critical civic infrastructure?

The ISE team and I are committed to bringing experts across the broadband ecosystem together to educate about all aspects related to Municipal Broadband. Together we are gathering great content in this exclusive section aptly titled: Municipal Broadband.

When I first heard about the concept of Municipal Broadband years ago, my reaction was You must be joking! It was scary to think a government bureaucracy would be operating a network as vast and complex as a Last Mile access network. The thought of a local government using tax payer money to compete with private companies didn’t add up either. What if you lived in a city and worked for the local incumbent telco or cable company, and your own tax dollars could be used to fund a competitor which, in theory, could cost you your job?

How you view Municipal Broadband depends on how you view broadband. It’s now common usage that the term broadband is synonymous with the term Internet Access. Not surprising, since many Telcos and Cablecos have called their high-speed Internet access service broadband. However, in the early days of Broadband and ADSL, broadband was considered a Layer 2 network based on Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM). This was a regulatory-driven technical decision: no retail = no wholesale unbundling requirement. ATM was chosen not because of neat switching technology but since there was no retail ATM services. Internet Access is considered a Layer 3 service.

In essence, the big incumbent service providers drive the narrative that broadband is a service (i.e., Internet Access). This impacts its regulatory classification, and is designed to avoid becoming a dreaded Title II and highly regulated common carrier. On the other end of the ecosystem, big Web/Cloud companies (e.g., Google, Facebook, et al.) want the broadband providers to be dumb pipes. Smarts, or intelligence, translates into profit margins. (This should start sounding like the net neutrality battle. And, in reality, it is.)

Over time, I noticed, in many cases, cities and towns embarking on their own broadband deployments because they had no choice. They knew that broadband isn’t about bit rates, fibers, and radio spectrum. In fact, many took the view that it is critical civil infrastructure necessary for community survival. In some cases, this critical civic infrastructure just offered Internet Access as a City Service.

The big question is whether Municipal Broadband is Internet Access as a City Service, Critical Civil Infrastructure, both, or something else entirely. This is more than word choice. This will drive every technical, business, and financial conversation the city has, and every decision the city will have to make. For example, if your model is Internet Access as a City Service, that could lead to a technical architecture decision of Passive Optical Network to save money on fiber strands. However, if your model is Critical Civil Infrastructure, that could steer you to a point-to-point fiber architecture.

Cities across the US and around the globe know with certainty that a modern multi-gigabit-capable Last Mile network is mandatory to participate in the future global economy. Early movers to the gigabit economy will reap the benefits for decades. Yet many city officials lack the detailed knowledge of telecommunications and specifically broadband. They often don’t even know the right questions to ask the incumbent providers when they show up every 10 years to renew their franchise.

Starting this month, the ISE team and I have committed to bringing experts across the broadband ecosystem together to educate about all aspects related to Municipal Broadband. The goal is to share objective learnings to the entire broadband ecosystem, including telecom providers, municipal leaders, and other stakeholders. The objective is to explore what Municipal Broadband is today, and all that Municipal Broadband can become in the future.

For February 2019, the content is also in the print and digital editions of ISE magazine. As of March, look for this exclusive content on under its own category called Municipal Broadband. Send me, via email, your comments, questions, or the names of the experts you think should be included in this discussion. Because when it comes to the future of broadband, we’re all in this together.

Municipal Broadband


About Greg Whelan

Greg Whelan, Principal at Greywale Advisors, is a leading expert on Open Access Broadband and Neutral Communication Infrastructure. He provides guidance to a wide range of broadband ecosystem participants including Technology Vendors, Municipal Leaders, Communication Service Providers, and Private Equity Investors. Greywale Advisors is a leading independent research firm focused on The Open and Neutral Future of Broadband. They work with private and public entities throughout the ecosystem to create the business, technical and financial architectures and implementation plans. If you’d like to discuss this, please contact us at For more information, please visit Follow Greywale Advisors on Twitter @greywale.