Should Your General Plan Have A Technology Element?

A decade ago, technology planning was a novelty for local governments. In most places, it still is. But increasingly, the viability of a community is linked to its access and use of information and communications technologies. Technology today is as vital to economic growth as transportation and utilities systems were in the past.

By Charles H. Kaylor and Christopher Steins

Technology infrastructure and economic development policies created to take advantage of it will determine a region’s future. Communities that integrate technology into their strategies and plans have a distinct edge over those that play catch-up.

Even regions that were once national technology centers realize the challenges they face now. Through the 1990s, the San Jose economy boomed even without an official economic development plan. But with the bursting of the dot-com bubble, Silicon Valley policy makers realize that remaining competitive is not automatic. Today, San Jose is preparing an economic development plan that recognizes that information and communications technology (ICT) is central to economic success.

Communities and regions across the country — including many at the periphery of the technology boom of the last century — are waking up to a reality similar to San Jose’s. Increasingly, proactive communities are looking to the planning process to guide their ICT strategy, much as planners guide other forms of development.

"Technology may not yet be fully recognized by the planning community," says Anthony Townsend, adjunct professor of communications and urban planning at New York University, "but technology infrastructure will increasingly be an integral part of any successful community, whether that is 311 services in Chicago and New York, physical infrastructure such as fiber optic or wireless networks, or e-government. The only way you can determine what your community needs is to do a comprehensive inventory, needs assessment, and a plan, much the way you would for any urban facility."

Evolution of tech plans

Planning efforts in many parts of the nation aim at harnessing technology to provide a strong economy and improved quality of life. A survey we conducted of more than 30 technology plans and projects shows that communities have not, for the most part, adopted coherent, wide-ranging strategies. Rather, various approaches to technology infrastructure, with disparate origins, have evolved over time.

The extension of telephone and electrical services in the last century is a good analogy; the institutional and regulatory vestiges of these infrastructure developments inform current policy and practice. Communities such as Cedar Falls, Iowa, developed municipally owned utilities to provide electricity and telephone service to areas not served by private providers. In recent years, these utilities have added high-speed Internet services.

Similarly, many communities have in recent decades formed cable regulatory commissions to negotiate franchises and provide oversight. As cable providers added telephony and Internet services, directly competing with traditional telephone companies, local commissions often broadened their mandate to oversee telecommunications generally.

As these changes occurred, wireless telecommunications boomed, raising an entirely new challenge for local governments. In the last several years, local planning departments have entered the fray, motivated by the need to ensure public safety while minimizing the intrusiveness of cell phone towers.

Still, most communities have not undertaken thorough, systematic efforts to chart future technology needs and the means to address them.

Lots of choices

Most of the technology plans and strategies we reviewed were limited in scope, falling into one of six categories:

• Plans or ordinances that address standards for wireless communications towers, focusing on siting, safety, and aesthetics. An increasing number of communities have realized the need for basic regulation, given the growing number of entities interested in construction of communications towers.

Several communities have drafted elements in their comprehensive plans (Mt. Vernon, Washington, and Plano, Texas) or addendums to their municipal codes (Tuolumne County, California) to address this challenge. While these plans often reference the economic importance of telecommunications, these regulations are not part of a broader strategy for economic development.

• Municipal telecommunications utilities, most of which piggyback on existing municipal utilities departments. Tacoma Power, the municipal utility in Tacoma, Washington, began to link all its substations with high-speed telecommunications. It also realized the potential to leverage this infrastructure to provide new services to residents and businesses.

Quite a few smaller communities also have municipally operated utilities. Examples include Harlan and Cedar Falls, Iowa; Newnan, Georgia; and Scottsboro, Alabama. Because the local government was already in the business of providing telephony, the next logical step was becoming the provider of high-speed Internet access.

• Projects for providing wireless broadband networks, often called wireless hot spots or WiFi networks. A growing number of communities are experimenting with municipally provided hotspots. San Jose, Cerritos, and Long Beach, California, all have provided wireless "hot zones" to promote the communities’ commitment to cutting edge technology.

In Long Beach, according to the Business Development Center’s website, the initial "hot zone" is part of the broader effort to be "the first city in the U.S. capable of connecting every building with high-speed broadband." Some smaller, more isolated communities are turning to wireless as an affordable alternative to fiber. Gladstone, Michigan, is building a citywide wireless network in the absence of alternatives from the private sector.

• Plans for developing institutional networks (I-nets) that connect public buildings and facilities to high-speed networks, frequently cost less than private networks. These plans are often collaborative and work across multiple organizations or jurisdictions. They often envision leasing excess capacity to other organizations, as does New York City’s "Network NYC: Building the Broadband City."

• Technology elements as components of the comprehensive plan appear to be growing in popularity, and seem to be a good way to articulate plans for the future of technology. Blacksburg, Virginia, has adopted an impressive technology element as part of its comprehensive plan that offers a framework for how technology should be used.

Kerrville, Texas, is one of the few communities in our survey that have gone beyond the basic regulatory challenges of facilitating an advanced communications infrastructure. The proof is in the topics covered in the city’s comprehensive plan, which takes account of the city’s web presence, potential residential uses of technology, and economic development.

• Regional plans: Public and private organizations are coming to realize that everyone has an economic stake in a region’s telecommunications future. Large-scale projects are under way in several areas to inventory present infrastructure, assess future needs, and develop road maps for meeting them. The San Joaquin Valley ACCESS program was developed to engage the nine counties in conducting an infrastructure assessment, set goals to improve readiness for networking, and develop actions to achieve those goals.

In some cases, the impetus comes from regional planning agencies. The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, realizing its potential role in this process, recently released "Prospectus for a Regional Telecommunications Planning Program." Such efforts sometimes lead directly to publicly developed networks. An example is the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, in which 18 municipalities participate in order to build, operate, and maintain an all-fiber telecommunications infrastructure.

Only a few communities have gone beyond the challenge of providing technology infrastructure; few plans consider a broader planning process. Development of policies and partnerships, and the use of infrastructure, all of which play into the future of technology, are largely left out of consideration, even though there are gains in a broader approach.

"The benefit [of technology planning] is to rationally integrate digital technology into transportation, land-use, and economic development initiatives as a way to enhance and support them," says Wally Siembab, president of Los Angeles-based Siembab Planning Associates and a pioneer in technology planning. "But this must be based on good planning and science, not on outmoded ideas about infrastructure being the missing ingredient."

Common themes

A comprehensive vision of future use, needs, and benefits would look beyond the nuts and bolts of infrastructure. A detailed infrastructure plan is, of course, essential for providing for future needs. That said, our survey of existing plans and efforts suggests four themes that a good technology plan should address, and infrastructure is only part of the equation. The themes are:

• Technology infrastructure: Providing high-speed access to telecommunications networks has been the primary focus of most plans we have encountered. Naturally, this "supply side" perspective is essential, but for the purposes of city-level planning, it may be less important than other aspects of planning that tend to be underdeveloped or taken for granted.

• Policy considerations: Most local government technology policies aim to limit the negative aspects of infrastructure development — to regulate telecommunications tower locations, aesthetics, and fees. However, plans such as the King County, Washington, e-Gov Alliance have produced agreements among cities and counties to adopt common pricing for issuing building permits online.

• Applications: Whereas technology infrastructure is the supply side of the technology plan, applications are the demand side. "If you are interested in seeing your regional economy develop, deepen, and widen how information and communications technologies are being used," says Siembab. "the idea that a community will attract high-tech businesses is usually a fallacy. The real benefits lie in helping the industries within your community use technology to make them more efficient."

• Institutions: Planning for ICT requires new thinking and collaboration. Technology planning should consider the institutions leading the drive for technological change, but also how technology is changing those institutions and their practices. Collaborative planning is a hallmark of technology plans.

Notable cases

Blacksburg 2046, the Virginia town’s 2001 comprehensive plan, builds on the 50-year vision established with the 1996 comprehensive plan. The 2001 plan contains many typical elements, but also an information technology element. This makes Blacksburg one of the few places formally to incorporate tech planning in comprehensive planning.

Blacksburg established itself as an early leader in community technology, largely through its affiliation with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, known as Virginia Tech, which is located there. In the late 1990s, Blacksburg was identified in the popular press as one of the most wired communities in America, with over 90 percent of the town’s population using the Internet at home or work, according to Dan McKinney, senior comprehensive planner in Blacksburg (pop. 40,000).

Working with the private sector, nonprofit organizations, other government entities, and the university, the town developed the information technology element as a way to make Blacksburg a model in the use of technology to improve quality of life. Town planners recognized that technology would change much more quickly than the 27-page IT element could be updated.

"We had to take a step back, and speak much more generally about what we want to accomplish with technology. This plan provides a framework," says McKinney. The technology element includes sections on community technology, public access, telecommunications providers, current technologies, opportunities, challenges, what is changing, general policies, and action strategies.

The plan has been very well-received, McKinney says. One of the element’s recommendations was to address the location of wireless communications facilities on a regional basis. From this recommendation, the town developed a separate regional wireless communications plan with the neighboring town of Christiansburg and the surrounding counties of Montgomery and Pulaski.

The regional plan includes an inventory of existing sites and establishes "allowed conditions" for evaluating cell tower applications and encourages telecommunications firms to share existing sites. The plan succeeded in mitigating construction of unneeded towers and controlling aesthetics.

The Information Technology Element of Blacksburg 2046, the town’s comprehensive Plan, completed in November 2001, may be found at

Located in King County, Washington, the cities of Bellevue, Bothell, Kenmore, Kirkland, Issaquah, Mercer Island, Sammamish, and Woodinville are responsible for building permits in their own jurisdictions. Each city council sets its own permit policies. As a result, different regulations and building codes have often complicated the permitting process for property owners and the regional contractors they employ.

The King County City Managers Association formed an "e-Gov Alliance," which launched a strategic planning process to identify areas of potential collaboration and leverage investment to deliver consolidated electronic services. What resulted was an inter-local agreement involving the eight cities and the county. The cities agreed to share resources and create a unified, multi-city e-permitting portal.

That portal provides a single resource where contractors working in multiple jurisdictions can not only obtain permit information, but also apply for over-the-counter permits, make payments, and request other services regarding building sites anywhere in the eight cities. Centralizing the application process also allows contractors to consolidate fee payments into one transaction per session. The system automatically pays each city’s merchant account.

Simple permits, including electrical, plumbing, and mechanical, are a natural choice for electronic delivery because they require no reviews or inspections, says John Backman, administrative services director of the Bellevue planning and community development department, the lead agency. "At least anecdotally," Backman says, "more permits are now being sold because it’s so much easier to buy a permit and comply with city regulations."

The success target was providing 30 percent of over-the-counter permits online within the first year. Within the first six months, the e-Permitting portal, launched in 2002, was handling 35 percent of all transaction volume.

Source: "Portal Unifies Eight Cities to Deliver On-Demand Building Permits," Microsoft Government Commerce Server 2000 Customer Solution, by Microsoft Government Services, 2003.

With more than $130 million in annual expenditures, New York City is the largest municipal buyer of telecommunications goods and services in the U.S. Despite this investment, the city has never published a comprehensive, long-range vision statement for its telecommunications infrastructure.

In May 2003, the city council published "Network NYC: Building the Broadband City." The report recommends a long-term strategic plan for organizing the public and private infrastructure to stimulate an affordable, citywide, high-speed networking capacity, with the potential to enhance service and reduce costs.

The report specifies savings that can result from technology planning. Many neighborhoods have several municipal buildings within a twenty-block radius. Fire-houses, police precincts, elementary and high schools, park facilities, libraries, and job centers are typically connected separately via the telephone company’s network, each having multiple connections that incur monthly charges of $400 to $1,200 each.

By using "multi-point wireless last mile links," however, enhanced network connections from the tallest municipal building in an area can distribute bandwidth wirelessly to all municipal sites nearby.

The 22-page report makes 10 recommendations and proposes four principles — that city procurement of telecom services should be competitive, community involvement should guide the procurement process, city-funded excess capacity should be open to third parties at wholesale rates, and the city should set preferential rates for municipal rooftops and fiber access for community networking

Source: "Network NYC: Building the Broadband City."

Hudson County, New Jersey, received a state cyberdistrict grant in 2001 to provide detailed information on the county’s digital network infrastructure.

The state considered cyberdistricts to be areas in which digital networks could be used to contribute to local economic development. A consultant team led by the Philadelphia-based firm of Wallace, Roberts & Todd worked with the county to produce the Hudson County Cyberdistrict Feasibility Study.

An initial evaluation found that the county’s network infrastructure was one of the best of any metropolitan area in the world. The challenge was to dramatically improve use of the infrastructure by institutions, businesses, and individuals through-
out the county. The plan recognizes that successfully implementing a cyber strategy involves building on existing organizations and assets rather than making physical investments.

"When we started this planning effort we were convinced that a cyber district meant that you had to build the infrastructure, and then get the businesses to come in," says Scott Page of Wallace, Roberts & Todd, the project manager. "What we found through this process was that what really mattered was figuring out how to use the infrastructure to be more competitive."

The plan outlines three initiatives and a series of projects using identified "centers" that would be designed and strategically located to contribute to regional mobility, economic growth, and urban revitalization. For example, the Network Neighborhood Initiative seeks to retrofit specific commercial, civic, and industrial centers, while the Network Enterprise Initiative focuses on modernizing public institutions and private firms. The Cyber Strategy Coordination Initiative focuses on broad policy guidelines to coordinate the efforts of public, private, and educational organizations.

Source: Hudson County (Draft) Cyberdistrict Feasibility Study, Wallace, Roberts & Todd, 2002.

Charles Kaylor is principal at the Public Sphere Information Group, a research and consulting firm based in Massachusetts. His work focuses on how technology intersects with government planning and policy as well as economic development. Chris Steins is chief executive officer of Urban Insight, Inc., an Internet consulting firm based in Los Angeles; he is also the chair of APA’s Information Technology Division.


Images: Top — A New York City report., "Network NYC: Building the Broadband City," outlines how a wireless point-of-presence or POP arrangement can serve a hypothetical group of nine public buildings, and how larger areas can be linked as well. Image New York City Council. Bottom — The regional library system’s welcome page, which may be accessed from the Blacksburg, Virginia, website, leads residents to services such as the reference staff, which answers questions submitted online, and a variety of databases. Image Town of Blacksburg & Montgomery-Floyd Regional Library System.

More technology plans online

"Prospectus for a Regional Telecommunications Planning Program, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, December 2003;

Technology Element, Mount Vernon (Washington) Comprehensive Plan, October 2002;

Wireless Communications Technology Element: 2010 Land Use Plan, Henrico County, Virginia, February 2000;

Technology Element, Comprehensive Plan, Plano, Texas, November 2002;

CivicNet, Chicago;

OakNET, Oakland County, Michigan;

ACCESS, San Joaquin Valley, California;

Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency;

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