Review of Planning and Broadband: Infrastructure, Policy and Sustainability

Review of  Planning and Broadband:  Infrastructure, Policy and Sustainability by Kathleen McMahon, AICP, Ronald L Thomas, FAICP and Charles Kaylor
Reviewed by Jurij Paraszczak  PhD IBM Research


In the world of public policy, one rarely associates the word planning with broadband fiber networks, yet the American Planning Association recently published a monograph on that very topic indicating that as much as roads or subways or buildings enable economic activity, so does a broadband communication system naming it the “nervous system of the city”. They point out that this network planning needs to be not only a component of a market driven approach but needs to take into account national criteria. The APA also points out that just as the federal government has supported a highway infrastructure so there is real benefit in it also enabling a high speed fiber infrastructure.  Rarely have municipalities performed this type of planning except in a few cases, such as that in Portland Ore., where this approach has been deployed to significant economic advantage.

Although fiber networks take up a lot less space than roads, they actually connect users to vast amounts of data, which in turn requires considerable resources – cheap energy, water for cooling and space. The availability of that data consumes vast amounts of energy.  Together the network and the data serve to drive the economy of the world, increasingly connecting it and creating deep dependencies around the globe.

The report points out that many drivers are creating this demand (some of which in the opinion of this author can be somewhat trite) ranging from commerce,  to health services, to e-government, education and entertainment.

This monograph emphasizes the importance of access, pointing out that some 90% of American households have access to the internet, only 65% actually do so. They point out that the reasons for this disparity lie in the cost for many and commercial focus of private-sector providers.


What is most interesting is the APA’s vision that a new set of tools and information needs to be developed to integrate and plan this broadband infrastructure mapping not only end points for commercial customers into this network but also a myriad of other users, such as transportation, power, water and other infrastructure systems. They all require bandwidth and connectivity to provide information which can ultimately result in the much more effective operation of cities.   It is no small leap that the APA is taking. Yet it is a very important one since for the first time, the infrastructure  of the nation are being mapped to the data that it generates and requires.  This is the first step of mapping the virtual world to the physical –  using a “4C”  mnemonic –  connectivity related to expectations of service,, contact pertaining to access, capacity indicating the amount of information the network can sustain, and challenges, a broad notion of enabling the US infrastructure to support its economic future.


Through the chapters of the monograph,  the APA begins to apply their planning methodology mapping the layers of the OSI 7 layer network model to the points of planning, the broadband components and to the technology functions.  This is a masterstroke which begins to knit the worlds of the physical and data infrastructures with a significant amount of detail and procedures which can be replicated. This is a seminal approach which is substantiated by a number of examples from cities such as the city of Santa Monica.


The authors are not afraid of detailing the controversies that have surrounded some of the efforts  by cities in developing their own broadband networks and the conflicts that arose. Perhaps one aspect that emerges from a planning perspective is that commercial providers build an infrastructure that provides them with revenue and profit whereas a publicly planned infrastructure provides opportunities to create growth in locations  which may not at first prove profitable for commercial providers.


Although there is considerable discussion about the opportunity for enabling sustainability, this is really more conjecture than proof. The ideas connecting information to sustainability are sound,  but their connection in detail to a required broadband infrastructure require quantification.   This is not an easy task,


Overall McMahon, Thomas and Kaylor not only define a seminal methodology for the translation of classical planning to the world of broadband, but they define a new domain linking the world of packets to the world of economics