Case Study: wireless broadband feasibility study and project for the City of Oakland

Community Broadband Case Study: Oakland

Best Practices Highlight Wireless Broadband Feasibility Study for the City of Oakland


Steve Blum, president of Tellus Venture Associates, and Ken
Gordon, CIO of the City of Oakland, present a broadband
feasibility study to the Oakland City Council, 11 May 2010.

Like nearly every government agency in California, the City of Oakland was faced with increasing demand for public services and a decreasing budget. An evaluation was needed of the potential for wireless technology to make municipal staff more efficient and allow them to stay in the field longer, and to provide Internet service to residents, either directly in their homes and businesses or indirectly through community anchor institutions. This evaluation needed to focus specifically on Oakland’s diverse population, needs and terrain. The City’s goals were:

  • Enhance economic development by enabling businesses to operate more effectively and by making Oakland a more attractive place to live, work, and visit.
  • Improve public safety by putting more police officers, fire fighters, inspectors and public works staff into the field, keeping them there longer and letting them work more efficiently.
  • Increase the effectiveness of public, private, and nonprofit organizations through improved access to state of the art broadband wireless technology.
  • Help overcome the digital divide.
  • Improve the quality of life for all Oaklanders.

Tellus Venture Associates was brought in to do a comprehensive feasibility studythat would include many public focus groups, workshops and a town hall meeting, close coordination with City departments and outside agencies, and a technical survey that included radio frequency modeling over the hills, canyons, flatlands and waterways within the city limits.

When we analysed the research data, the trends that emerged tracked closely with the best practices we’ve developed during seven years of municipal and community broadband experience. The result was a more refined list of those principles:

  1. No matter what the manufacturer says, the laws of physics still apply. No matter what the special interests say, sound business principles still apply. Don’t underestimate the public’s appreciation of physics and sound business principles, or overestimate its regard for manufacturers and special interests.
  2. City-owned and operated metropolitan area networks are a cost effective means of extending information technology infrastructure and resources to local government facilities and employees.
  3. Providing broadband connectivity to targeted community anchor institutions can be financially and technically feasible for cities, and is supported by public opinion.
  4. Providing universal, consumer-grade wireless Interet access is not financially or technically feasible for cities, and is not supported by public opinion.
  5. Cities can better promote digital inclusion by enabling and supporting a competitive broadband environment.
  6. Widespread public awareness and support precedes deployment of a successful municipal broadband system.
  7. Fiber optic and wireless technologies can be effective choices for network backbone segments, depending on capital and operating cost, timing, right-of-way, capacity and other considerations.
  8. Fiber optic and other landline technologies provide orders of magnitude more bandwidth and many more years of useful service life, with lower operating costs.
  9. Wireless technologies can be deployed faster and at much lower capital expense, and provide greater flexibility to change network topologies and service models to meet future needs.
  10. Wireless technologies have the unique ability to support municipal staff in the field, particularly public safety personnel, but should only be deployed after an independent evaluation of technology, terrain and available spectrum.

With these principles in mind, we assessed the Oakland public’s needs and priorities, designed a reference architecture that could meet those needs, and developed a business model that quantified the benefits, demonstrated the value proposition and identified the money to pay for it all.

Our findings were:

  • A point-to-point wireless broadband system serving specific community and institutional needs is financially and technically sustainable for the City of Oakland.
  • The cost of building and operating such a system can be met through identifiable cost savings, efficiency gains and budgetary choices based on the economic value of the benefits produced.
  • Public Internet access by way of community anchor institutions is financially and technically feasible, and universally supported by a diverse range of Oakland residents, organisations, agencies and businesses if it is implemented in a fiscally sound manner.
  • Enabling entrepreneurial opportunities for local businesses on a pay-as-you-go, public-private partnership basis is also backed by Oakland stakeholders and supported by the financial and technical analysis conducted for this study.
  • Providing wireless Internet service to residences or individual consumers is not financially sustainable or technically feasible for the City of Oakland, and is opposed by nearly all stakeholders, who cite the widespread technical and financial failure of such systems in other cities.

The next step was to secure the funding. Some of it came from the cost savings created by replacing a large number of low capacity, leased land lines with a comprehensive wireless backbone, comprised of high capacity point-to-point links using licensed spectrum. Some of it came from money budgeted for expensive cellular data service. In other cases, savings in man-hours and increased productivity, including more and better field audits by tax officers, offset operating costs.

Finding the money to pay for the capital expense was a different problem. Bonds were not an option, given the uncertainty of future budgets.

Some of the funding could be raised locally, through public-private partnerships, but not all of it. Fortunately, the conclusion of the study coincided with the establishment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the federal economic stimulus program, which included $7.2 billion for broadband projects.

With its emphasis on public safety, community anchor institutions and economic development, the broadband infrastructure plan created by Tellus Venture Associates for the City of Oakland was ideally suited to meet the program’s requirements. The stimulus grant application had to wait until the second round of funding, because the first round emphasized rural projects and all but excluded urban areas from eligibility for broadband infrastructure funding.

At the same time Google announced its own broadband grant program, which likewise tracked with the best practices we incorporated into the study.

Applications were submitted to both programs, but were not funded. Using the draft Request for Proposal prepared by Tellus Venture Associates, the City implemented the primary technical recommendation of the study and built a core wireless broadband network using dedicated microwave links.