Fast Company, February 20, 2015
Comcast, Verizon, AT&T: Watch out. In order to increase competition and expand high-speed Internet access to areas without, the Federal Communications Commission is set to vote next week to support the rights of cities to create their own fiber networks.
Hundreds of communities have already built their own public broadband infrastructure in the U.S., or pursued public-private partnerships. Some public projects have been big successes, helping small cities save money, attract new businesses with high-speed access, and better serve all residents. Others have failed to stay afloat, or have become case studies in “lessons learned.” (See Provo, Utah’s project or Burlington, Vermont’s).
But in 19 states, the telecom and cable industry has convinced legislatures to pass laws that block a city’s right to experiment with community broadband at all. This has left many communities with whatever quality and price of service that TimeWarner, or Verizon, or Comcast chooses to offer—and since three-quarters of U.S. homes have no competitive choice for high-speed service, according FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, that means they’re basically stuck.
“The number of municipal networks is really poised to explode,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “There’s not one model that we’re expecting to see, but as a result of this, we’re expecting cities to take a larger role.” In addition to government actions, he credits Google Fiber—which although a private service and only available in a few cities—for showing other communities what is possible and giving them leverage to demand better from their providers or build their own networks.
Today’s debates have a historical precedent in the time when electricity was still a new technology changing how the world worked. “We saw all the same arguments 100 years ago that we’re seeing today—often verbatim,” Mitchell says.