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The Importance of Partnerships For Municipal Broadband

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Intersector Project
September 27, 2016

jw-original_broadbandInternet access is increasingly important in today’s world, as more services and everyday interactions move online. While many local governments see the benefit in providing high speed broadband to their citizens, few seek to get into the business through a “purely municipal model, where the city would engage in direct competition with existing providers,” explains a new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). Public-private partnerships are another option, and report authors Patrick Lucey and Christopher Mitchell provide key lessons for cities moving forward with these collaborative models.

The authors emphasize a focus on what they call “true partnership” — agreements that involve sharing risk and reward equally (or as equally as possible) between both public and private partners. This balance is not easy to achieve, they note, due to the differing priorities and organizational cultures of the sectors. For example, the public sector is looking to improve internet access for the public good — to attract new businesses and improve education opportunities. “This perspective means public-sector partners have a different requirement on a network’s return on investment timeline,” they explain. “Local governments are more comfortable with a longer payback period. … Private partners need a faster return on investment for their business to be successful.”

This tension is one that frequently arises in cross-sector collaborations and one that we discuss in our Toolkit, Share a Vision of Success — the agreement on a set of goals and ideal outcomes that clarify the mission and priorities of the collaboration. This process is difficult because collaboration partners are likely to come to the collaboration with their own organization and sector-specific priorities and mandates. The most effective collaborations acknowledge and welcome these differences. While they can complicate the process of agreeing on a shared vision, they go hand in hand with the complementary resources and capabilities that cross-sector partners bring to the partnership.

For example, government’s prioritization of the rule of law and providing public services accompanies its unique power of policy, significant reach, and ability to impact public opinion; the market approach of the business sector results in its considerable financial resources and expertise in product and service delivery. As the collaboration works to develop its shared vision of success, partners should be encouraged to communicate their differing priorities openly and honestly, so that the collaboration can surface areas of shared agreement and mutual benefit, building a solid foundation for its work.

The ILSR report highlights two examples of municipal broadband partnerships where partners were able to work through these differing priorities to create shared success. In one example, the City of Westminster, Maryland, worked with Ting, a Canadian mobile service, to connect homes and businesses using fiber. Under their contract, the city and Ting have agreed to share the financial burden if revenue doesn’t exceed the cost to build the network. The city owns the infrastructure of the network, ensuring universal access, while Ting is protected if the city decides to sell the network.

While extracting lessons from successful efforts is helpful, at The Intersector Project we’re also interested in how practitioners can learn from failure. Understanding what structures, processes and partner interactions exist in failed cross-sector collaborations can allow for a stronger understanding of the conditions that contribute to successful collaborations. In referencing examples of failed municipal broadband P3s from Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle and Monticello, Minnesota, ILSR is providing practitioners with the opportunity to see what went wrong and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Author: The Intersector Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing cross-sector collaboration as a way to address society’s pressing issues. We work to provide practitioners in every sector with the tools they need to implement collaborative solutions to complex problems. 

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