With over 60 million Americans lacking Internet access at home, activists in the digital inclusion space have looked to municipal broadband as a way of providing Americans with cheaper, faster Internet access. It’s of special interest to rural communities that often lack the infrastructure to provide high-speed Internet service to residents. With this topic on everyone’s mind, here are four quick facts you need to know about municipal broadband.
- Think beyond Chattanooga. When people think of municipal broadband, the first city that pops into their mind is Chattanooga, TN. Communities across the United States have used public funds to create and manage its own broadband networks. This list of cities include Wilson, NC; Lafayette, LA; Bristol, VA; and Cedar Falls, IA.
It is illegal in 20 states…but that’s about to change. Government provision of Internet services was not an option for communities in 20 different states. Texas state law prohibited municipalities and electric utilities from providing the service directly to the public or through third party vendors. Cities and counties in California are able to provide communications services to the public, only if a private company is not willing to do so. Other states with bans include Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
The bans on municipal or community broadband networks may soon be removed. Federal laws allow government agencies to preempt state laws conflicting with its regulations or policies. In February 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a Memorandum Opinion and Order stating North Carolina and Tennessee prohibitions on community networks conflict with the FCC’s goals of promoting “broadband deployment, investment, and competition.” FCC finds these state laws violate Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Although this move by the FCC was not without its critics, the memo may help dismantle prohibitions on community broadband networks.
- The model can reduce the cost of service. In the Open Technology Institute’s 2014 Cost of Connectivity Report, researchers found, “municipal broadband networks in the U.S. deliver considerable value to consumers while also providing some of the fastest speeds in the country.” For example, the report states a 300 Mbps symmetrical connection costs about $300 per month in New York City, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles. The cost of a gigabit connection, however, can be as low as $70 per month.
It’s not a perfect model. Proponents of municipal broadband need to understand it’s not a perfect solution to the digital divide. First, there are the risks inherent in any large infrastructure project: cost overruns and late schedules. Municipalities also need the institutions to support the construction of networks and delivery of services.It’s also not good enough to just build out a network. To increase adoption among low-income households, there must be the right mix of conditions and resources available.The service must be priced in such a way that it is possible for people on a restricted or fixed income to realistically make Internet service part of the household hold budget. It’s equally important for individuals to have access to affordable computers and digital literacy training to encourage meaningful use of the Internet.
Communities should have all potential solutions on the table when figuring out how to provide its residents with fast, affordable Internet connections. Whether it’s using public funds to build out infrastructure or developing incentives to encourage private investment, Internet access is too important of a tool to ignore.
I encourage you to check out the following resources to learn more about this very important issue:
- FCC press release on community broadband decision
- “What other cities should learn from Philly’s failed municipal broadband effort” by Tony Abraham
- Understanding the Debate Over Government-Owned Broadband Networks by Charles M. Davidson and Michael J. Santorelli
- Cost of Connectivity 2014 by Danielle Kehl, Nick Russo, Robert Morgus, and Sarah Morris (Open Technology Institute)
- Why Broadband Matters by Julia Pulidini (National League of Cities)
- The Art of the Possible: An Overview of Public Broadband Options by Benjamin Lennett and Patrick Lucey (Open Technology Institute)