Updated: Jun 14
Futurist and technology counselor Brent Messer guides U.S. cities in creating equitable, affordable high-speed internet for local homes, schools and businesses.
When U.S. President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) into law in Nov. 2021, he signaled officially that the U.S. is serious about ensuring that every U.S. household, school and business has access to reliable, affordable broadband service. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the fact that high-speed internet access is no longer a luxury but rather an essential tool for routine access to healthcare, employment opportunities, education, and day-to-day living.
Creating Access to Infrastructure
Brent Messer, an author and executive counselor for Info-Tech Research Group, London, Ontario, is helping American cities large and small take advantage of this new funding and political momentum to strive to attain the goal of “broadband for all.”
Working with local and state chief technology or chief information officers (CIO), he helps communities map out individualized strategies for organizing, funding, developing and installing municipal high-speed internet in their community.
“When it comes to installing high-speed internet infrastructure, traditional internet service
providers (ISPs) such as Comcast or AT&T have often ignored rural areas, small towns and inner-city areas because it simply wasn’t profitable for them,” Messer explains. “We counsel underserved cities and regions in ways they can cross that ‘digital divide.’ Those options include (but are not limited to) setting up a 'middle mile' network between a current ISP and underserved communities or establishing a municipally-owned ISP.”
Messer draws heavily on his experience as the former chief information officer for the City of Chattanooga, Tenn., whose city-owned ISP claims the nation’s fastest, most equitable high-speed internet. He also guides CIOs in ways to make their cities “smarter.”
Fixating on Computers
Growing up in Yonkers, N.Y., a suburb of New York City, Messer was fascinated with cars, airplanes and computers, not necessarily in that order. His dad, an FBI agent and a technology early adapter, “always had the latest camera, the latest computer, the latest whatever,” Messer recalls. His home environment provided ample opportunities to experiment with computers, figure them out and show his dad how they actually worked.
Messer’s fixation on computers became official – in his mind at least – in 1984, when he saw the film “War Games.” The film features a high school computer nerd (Matthew Broderick) who inadvertently hacks into a U.S. military supercomputer system and nearly activates the nation’s nuclear arsenal.
“I wanted to know how that worked, if it was actually possible,” he remembers. “The movie definitely pointed me in the direction of “I want to do THAT.” By THAT, of course, he meant wanting to know all about computers, not start World War III.
Following his family’s move to Gainesville, Fla., Messer found ways to put himself in regular, close proximity to computers. As captain of his elementary school’s safety patrol, for example, he assigned himself the library shift, “specifically so I could play with the library computers and learn everything about how they worked.” After graduating high school, Messer also began experimenting with this new-fangled thing called the World Wide Web, building websites and writing code instead of partying with his contemporaries.
To help pay for college and fortify his computer education, Messer joined the U.S. Army. As a quartermaster, he worked on airfields refueling helicopters, but also on the Army’s computer-based supply system. This experience refined his appreciation for how technology and digital information can affect the operation and efficiency of an organization.
The GI Bill got Messer to the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in visual communications in 2005. After working several IT jobs in the private sector, he found his way to Alachua County, Fla. – home to Gainesville – where he first became its web services supervisor, and later its applications manager.
After completing a master’s degree from Dakota State University in 2011, Messer — a self-described polymath — worked for two years as the deputy director of IT for the City of Greenville, N.C. In 2014, however, opportunity knocked again and he became Chattanooga’s second CIO, fulfilling one of his life goals: to become a CIO before the age of 40. He was just 37.
Meeting Cities Where They Are
Today, Messer counsels CIOs on a range of topics centered largely on broadband.
“Unfortunately,” he notes, “CIOs are often asked by city leaders to simply ‘do broadband’ without any understanding of what such a request entails, how to develop network requirements or how best to fund such an undertaking.”
To address this unpredictable landscape, Messer and his team offer CIOs a generalized “roadmap” to help move their city from starting point A to destination B(roadband). The roadmap begins with each city’s vision for itself and walks through the basic steps and underlying characteristics of achieving broadband success.
“My advisees range from cities committed to installing fiber-optic networks, standing up an ISP and becoming a smart city, to cities that can only commit to installing ‘dark’ (inactive) fiber now with hopes of creating a broadband network in the future, and everything in between, including first mile, middle mile or even a Wi-Fi network,” says Messer.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines “broadband” as any high-speed internet access with a minimum of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed.
Regardless of a community’s starting point, Messer advises, creating a successful and equitable broadband network requires commitment and discipline on several levels.
“Perhaps the most important thing is to create value for the new network in the minds of local constituents,” he offers. “It’s all about driving value and putting it in terms that people understand and will support.”
Local governments also need good community partners such as libraries, airports or schools; i.e., partners who can provide a logistic framework for installing a network or offer access to currently installed networks.
“Municipal ISP ownership guarantees that access to the network is equitable and affordable for all."
-- Brent Messer, Info-Tech Research Group
Finally, adds Messer, it’s essential to run the ISP like a business, not a municipal department. “You’ll need money, political support and a local community that believes in what you’re doing, of course,” he offers, “but to be truly successful, you’ll need people who can provide tech support, a business plan, startup capital and everything else. If all you do is put fiber in the ground, that fiber is going to remain dark.”
Unfortunately, cautions Messer, prevailing laws still stand in the way of creating municipal ISPs in at least 18 states.
These state laws, which were enacted largely in response to complaints from traditional ISPs who have to compete – often unsuccessfully – with municipal ISPs, typically prohibit municipal utilities and state electric co-ops – tax-exempt, non-profit electric companies owned and operated by members — from providing fiber optic services to their users.
When Chattanooga stood up EPB of Chattanooga to operate the city’s high-speed internet in 2010, for example, Comcast filed suit against EPB, claiming that the utility was improperly using ratepayer funds to subsidize the new internet venture. Within the first year and a half of launching the service, however, EPB was paying all of its network operation and maintenance costs from its internet user fees, effectively neutralizing Comcast resistance to the EPB network.
Working for Change
Messer views the passage of the IIJA, however, as an opportunity to advocate for changes in such state laws.
“We get a lot of support among local officials for doing away with these restrictions,” Messer claims, “but a lot of state congressmen still rely on political contributions from ISPs and don’t really want to rock the boat.”
On a more optimistic note, he offers, there are signs that some ISPs are beginning to recognize their responsibility to support broadband for all, perhaps by working with local governments to provide low-cost high-speed internet for disadvantaged communities.
Focusing on Efficiency
Workdays begin early in Messer’s home in Hixson, Tenn., a 20-minute drive from downtown Chattanooga. His morning routine includes feeding the family dogs – a Chihuahua named Bella and a brown Yorkipoo named Hershey – and getting his two middle schoolers ready for school and out the door.
Messer’s “office” these days is just down the hall, or on his boat, or at the local coffee shop. Online meetings are the norm, with an occasional out-of-town trip for face-to-face client meetings.
And when it comes to his professional wardrobe, he confesses, “I try to be as efficient as I possibly can. I wear pretty much the same type of outfit every day. It’s one less decision I have to make.” Around town, he’s known for wearing jeans, a pair of Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star shoes (with his initials on them), perhaps a shirt, tie and jacket or radically, a suit “upper” with a casual “lower.”
Failing Fast, Moving Forward
In the end, Messer is cautiously optimistic that “broadband for all” will happen, but it may not become ubiquitous for at least a decade.
“The Federal infrastructure bill is a step in the right direction,” he concedes, “but a lot of changes in state legislation have to occur as well. Even though President Biden puts out a plan, it doesn’t supersede current laws in Tennessee, North Carolina or South Carolina, which remain some of the biggest roadblocks we face.”
Messer, however, remains undaunted.
“When I was Chattanooga’s CIO, I always instilled in my staff and other city officials the notion that failure is an option,” he offers. “I encouraged them to fail and fail fast, and move on so that they can succeed. Now I offer the same advice to my Info-Tech clients. If they’re not willing to do that, and take those risks, they’re not going to inspire the innovation needed for their community to achieve the goal of broadband for all.”
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If you enjoyed reading this profile, I encourage you to check out my recent profile of David Ly, CEO of Iveda Solutions, who is guiding the integration of digital technology with municipal broadband networks to help create smart cities. If you have ideas for other infrastructure profiles, please send them to me at email@example.com.