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  • Bob Knight

Pittsburgh Broadband Summit Takeaways

Pittsburgh's stunning skyline

After a morning of summer air travel (ugh!), Carolyn and I are back in the office, fully energized by what we absorbed at Next Century Cities' (NCC) Regional Broadband Summit in Pittsburgh. NCC masterfully crafted an agenda that covered everything from federal and state-level policy, to digital inclusion, 5G deployment, and the financing new broadband networks.

We've returned with some interesting takeaways:

Tom Coverick, Keybanc Capital Markets

1. Bring Your Bonding Team to the Table Early in the Process

KeyBanc Capital Markets' Tom Coverick, who we feel is the nation's leading mind in broadband network financing, explained how having your banker at the table early can help make the process a smooth one. Tom explained how he and his team work to educate elected officials on the complexities of bond deals. "An uninformed City Council vote is usually a NO vote," he says.

Don Williams, NTIA

2. Stakeholder Engagement is a Critical Step in Network Financing

NTIA's Don Williams stressed the importance of community and stakeholder engagement, and has made it part of NTIA's federal recommendations. Neighborly's Garrett Brinker agreed, saying that there have been so many cases of broadband projects that have failed because of a stray remark by an uninformed public official or stakeholder, that has been picked up in the press.

Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

3. Make the Business Case for Broadband

Mignon Clyburn, who recently stepped down from her role as an FCC Commissioner, was very clear in the message she delivered to the NCC Summit: "Everything we say here today is about investing in the future and solving today's big problems...We have to make the business case for everything we do." Commissioner Clyburn stressed the importance of showing ROI on broadband projects and bridging the digital and opportunity divides among underserved communities.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto

4. Contrary to the FCC Maps, The Digital Divide is Real

Inaccurate data at the FCC creates a murky view of the nation's broadband coverage. The inaccurate data makes it difficult for cities and new entrants to ascertain where broadband gaps are. One member of the summit's audience believes there is a deliberate misinformation campaign that is being driven by the big carriers to make it look like broadband coverage is much greater than it actually is. Pittsburgh's mayor Bill Peduto outlined all the progress his city has made over the years, but points to the digital divide as one of the key impediments to full economic prosperity in Pittsburgh. Francella Ochillo, who heads up government and legal affairs for the National Hispanic Media Coalition said: "There is a cost for keeping people disconnected."

Brookings Institution's Blair Levin

5. There's Zero Evidence Cost Savings Gets Reinvested by the Carriers

Blair Levin, former FCC Chief-of-Staff and author of the National Broadband Plan, gave a sharp criticism of current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's philosophy on how broadband deployment should be regulated. Levin says the current regulatory approach gives incumbent carriers everything they're asking for with little public benefit. He says there's no evidence that cost savings passed on to the carriers gets reinvested into deployment. Levin says any savings gets funneled into stock buybacks and dividends before reinvestment.

UTOPIA's Kim McKinley

6. The Importance of PR and Marketing

It was pretty clear among the speakers at the NCC Summit that community engagement, stakeholder engagement, media management, messaging, advertising, and marketing are key to the success of broadband projects. Kim McKinley who heads marketing for UTOPIA Fiber Network says she invests heavily in digital marketing campaigns that help attract 500 new subscribers monthly. When UTOPIA was originally launched, leadership chose a "build-it-and-they-will-come" strategy for attracting new customers. This method failed, royally. Through clear and consistent messaging, McKinley and her team have helped to turn Utah's UTOPIA into the nation's leading example of what a sucessful Open Access network should be. Essentially, projects don't get off the ground without smart PR and marketing, and they don't attract subscribers without it either.

We couldn't agree more.

Special thanks to Deb Socia, Chris Mitchell, Cat Blake, and the entire Next Century Cities team for pulling together a thoughtful agenda, inviting interesting speakers, and convening the right people to drive the industry forward in the United States.

Contact Bob Knight to discuss broadband public relations and marketing campaigns.

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