Building Broadband Better with Community Empowerment Networks

By Brogan Eisler, Research Assistant

The COVID-19 pandemic has painfully underscored the need to more effectively expand affordable high-performance broadband in underserved and disadvantaged communities, or to borrow a phrase from U.S. President Biden, Build Broadband Better.  

There are many challenges facing efforts to achieve this goal, including identifying and prioritizing unserved and underserved areas; funding, designing, building and operating networks to serve these areas and; ensuring that network access is affordable and that the devices and skills needed to benefit from that access are accessible to all. With increased federal funding now available to support expanded broadband access, key decisions must be made at the state and local level about how best to address this web of interrelated challenges.  

This 21st Century Communications project culminated in a webinar hosted by industry expert Mitch Shapiro, which examined a promising approach to Building Broadband Better: Automated Open Access (AOA) community networks. AOA networks provide unique benefits, including reduced cost of operation; increased competition and innovation among ISPs (Internet Service Providers); lower prices, increased choice, security and ease of use for customers and; an open platform for innovation and value creation by community service providers (CSPs), including organizations operating in the healthcare, education, public safety, government, public utility and nonprofit sectors.  

On August 26, 2021, the webinar explored a key element of Building Broadband Better--network design, including how it relates to other elements of 21st Century Communication Infrastructure. More specifically, the webinar examined an approach to network design known as “automated open access” (AOA) community networks. These local networks employ the software defined networking (SDN) and network virtualization (NV) technologies that today power the high-performance data centers operated by Internet giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix. In light of these broad-based benefits, we refer to community networks with AOA capabilities as Community Empowerment Networks. 

While Building Broadband Better explains a small piece of the ever-changing 21st Century Communication landscape, the webinar went further. The four (4) main elements REI Innovation Fellow Mitch Shapiro addressed during his webinar were simple:  

  • Why only fiber optics is future ready communication infrastructure 

  • How automated open access technologies support healthy competition, innovation and empower community stakeholders 

  • Emerging models that can work in your community 

  • What you can do to help leverage federal support to bring 21st Century Communication Infrastructure to your community 

Mitch Shapiro understands what is at stake within our communities, but it important that we do too. We are seeing rapid changes in 21st Century Communications daily, and it is important that we not only understand these new technologies, but also understand them in ways that can enhance our communities and allow them to thrive. This isn’t a new idea--just ask Mitch. 

Mitch Shapiro has worked as an independent consultant and author in the telecommunication industry for 35 years. For the past decade he has applied his broad and deep knowledge of technology, policy, and business issues to the challenge of expanding high-performance broadband and its benefits in underserved areas. Mitch’s recent work with CCED includes: 1) a 2019 REI co-learning plan entitled “Electric Cooperatives and the Digital Divide: Helping Connect Rural Americans to 21st Century Opportunity” and; 2) a 2020 Innovation Fellowship focused on developing strategies and alliances to expand broadband access throughout Michigan. He has also worked with MSU's Quello Center, co-authoring a report examining innovative technologies and strategies to extend broadband connectivity, developing a policy brief focused on strategies to bridge Michigan's digital divides, and contributing more than 50 posts to the Quello Center blog

Mitch’s interest in community networks dates back to the early 1980s when, as a graduate student, he co-authored a guidebook for communities interested in creating cooperatively owned cable TV networks. Since then he has continued to research and write about the feasibility and benefits of community-owned broadband networks, including a community fiber guidebook published in 2008 by the Public Technology Institute. He is also the founder and author of the Evolving Human Systems blog

In addition to an introductory presentation prepared by the CERI project team, the webinar included a presentation, discussion and Q&A session featuring executives from EntryPoint Networks, a leading developer of AOA network technology. If you are interested in viewing the webinar, please visit the Building Broadband Better with Community Empowerment Networks webpage here.

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