Getting back to business with broadband investment

The federal stimulus program overshadowed private sector funding for new broadband infrastructure for more than a year. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) threatened to wash out broadband venture opportunities with billions of dollars of grants and loans. Some projects will absorb federal money instead of private risk capital. Most won’t and the surviving opportunities will become evident over the next few months.

demand study
Price points, service benchmarks and likelihood
to buy are key data for revenue projections
Local agencies and economic development organizations still have the job of attracting that investment. Instead of telling tales of dire need, they’ll be back to the business of encouraging business by documenting unmet demand and offering the right incentives to tip decisions in their direction. I’ll have more to say about sweetening the pot later. The first job is to refocus on demand.

Need and demand are two very different things. Need is a general concept, and leans heavily on qualitative judgments. It’s a useful basis for public policy discussions, and marketers can use it to target services and products. Raw need, though, is not very helpful in making a core business case.

Demand is a precisely defined, quantitative, microeconomic metric. It’s usually the one big missing piece when service providers, and their investors, are evaluating a network build outside of their existing footprint.

Demographics, geography and existing infrastructure are important too, but the first two are freely available and most people who are active in the broadband investment space have a good enough idea of what’s already out there. The state broadband mapping projects funded by the federal stimulus program are likely to be game changers, and that makes it even better.

A good demand study, with estimates of take rates over a range of services and price points, leads to supportable revenue projections. When it comes to attracting an investor, a statistically valid and methodologically sound revenue projection is gold. It’s a lot easier to persuade someone to invest in a project that promises revenue. Investors aren’t interested in much else.

Going forward, public broadband funding will follow private capital. The two big remaining pots of public money belong to state universal service programs such as the California Advanced Services Fund and RUS, both of which require substantial private sector co-investment, sustainable business plans that are well documented and, where RUS is concerned, the ability to take on considerable debt.

Need motivates local governments and organizations to compete for private broadband investment. They’ll win when they can put demand on the table.