So let the naysayers and talking heads let fly, but the little secret that is secret no more is that the results of a carefully planned and deployed municipally owned system delivered free to the citizens as a public service is actually the most successful, beneficial and effective model in existence.

So says Jonathan Baltuch, who help found MRI, a consultancy specializing in planning economic development strategies for municipalities.

What naysayers? Those critical of St. Cloud, Florida’s deployment of a municipally-sponsored, tax-supported but externally managed citywide high-speed Internet service. After just 6 months, with %77 uptake this public service project is well on its way to providing %100 of the St. Cloud community with ubiquitous Internet access. Amazing for a community lacking Chapel Hill’s built-in audience of academic, entrepreneurial and professional communication consumers.

…championed by former Mayor Glenn Sangiovanni, [the service] was viewed from day one as an economic development project. Through the process it flourished with the realization that this one project benefited many different stake holders.

The City saw the opportunity to enhance public services and dramatically reduce the cost of delivery. The digital divide gap would be drawn much closer, creating universal opportunities for the community, small businesses would benefit from improved connectivity and reduced cost, educational institutions would be able to enhance learning and visitors would have more opportunities and choices.

Not to mention providing unique services, like ambulance telemetry, enhanced first responder support, filing in-field inspection reports or a better real-time passenger information system instead of Chapel Hill’s expensive and flawed NextBus deployment.

I’ve held up St. Cloud as a model (“Wifi for a few dollars less…”) for what we could do in Chapel Hill. That is if we had the leadership and foresight to forge ahead.

The service is no pie-in-the-sky. The 8,421 registered households of the small hamlet of St. Cloud have not only participated but begun to see real savings:

But the real and immediate value was as an economic development driver. The ability to capture dollars that were previously leaving the local economy and make them available to purchase local goods and services was a driving factor. The citizens of St. Cloud, at the 6 month mark, are now saving over $300,000 per month.

As Baltuch points out, success for this system goes beyond the anecdotal:

HP, the system designer and operator, has done an amazing job of tracking a host of statistics which give a clear window in to the reality of the Cyber Spot.

Usage statistics are quite impressive with 504,981 sessions, 1,794,847 hours online, 9.5 terabytes (9.5 million millions or roughly 151 million web pages) completed and consumed by the citizens participating.

That hard, statistical information coupled with an in-depth user survey paints a compelling picture of success. More importantly, it clearly demonstrates the dramatic differences and benefits to the public which are achieved from a Municipal-owned (yet outsourced) system, delivered free as a public service verses an ISP model.

As residents became more comfortable and conversant with the system, use increased from an average session length of 2.64 hours to 3.33 hours, traffic increased %286 and the initial goal of 8,000 households was exceeded.

Baltuch estimates that the current available savings to the community is $3.6 million, the economic stimulus just under $26 million.

With our Town’s head of IT pushing Clearwire, a for-profit vendor, we’re in danger of losing the true benefit of a community-owned network. As Baltuch points out, when communities turn to private incumbent providers:

What started out has a unique opportunity for communities to catapult themselves and this country back into a leadership position has rapidly and largely disintegrated into a free-for-all for incumbents to offer just another service choice.

Lost are the amazing economic, educational and social opportunities and gains made possible by free, ubiquitous connectivity. The goal of every community should be 100% access and participation. This can be achieved and the St. Cloud model proves it both works and provides economic benefits to a community which far outweigh the investment.

He closes by calling for municipalities to recognize “the need for their community to own and control this critical resource for the benefit of their citizens…” and that “…the investment of public dollars in these projects is just that- an investment in [the] community‚Äôs future- and one that pays immediate dividends.”

Council needs to put municipal-networking back on track.

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