Wired, May 28, 2013
When it comes to broadband internet access, the U.S. still lags behind other developed nations. We don’t have the broadband connections that other countries have, and fewer people are using them.
Google Fiber — the gigabit internet service the company offers in Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri — has sparked hope that the U.S. could one day catch up to countries such as South Korea and Japan. But although Google is expanding its fiber services to more cities — and private companies like AT&T and Centurylink have promised to step up fiber offerings in some areas — we’re a long way from nationwide high-speed internet.
One solution may be municipal broadband services — services owned and operated by local governments, as opposed to independent ISPs. Last week, the Media Consortium hosted a conference call with Christopher Mitchell of Institute for Local Self Reliance; Kansas City, Missouri assistant city manager Rick Usher; and Matt Wood, policy director of Free Press, to compare community broadband initiatives with Google Fiber. While Usher praised Google’s efforts in Kansas City on both sides of the state line, Mitchell and Wood highlighted some of the reasons that a community might want both a commercial offering and a municipal broadband network.
Mitchell pointed to Chattanooga, Tennessee’s fiber network as a great example of what community broadband can do. The city rolled out its gigabit internet service to customers in 2010. But it didn’t stop at the city limits. The service is available to the city’s entire electrical footprint, which extends to some part of Georgia. “They weren’t just interested in serving the wealthy neighborhoods,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell added, however, that he’s not against private companies like Google and AT&T competing with municipal services. He said that customers should have a choice of providers, and no provider should have a monopoly. “We need as many hands on deck as possible,” he said.
In that way, Google Fiber has been a welcome addition. It’s igniting more competition in cities like Austin, Texas, where Google announced it would bring fiber last month. It’s also spurring competition from smaller companies in communities that Google hasn’t approached yet, such as Lawrence, Kansas,where a small provider is rolling out fiber internet before Google can have the chance to come in.
But there’s no guarantee that Google Fiber will come to the rest of the United States, and many communities may want to start building an alternative right away. Mitchell said the first step towards building a municipal broadband service in your area is to get educated about what other communities have done. That’s the purpose of the site muninetworks.org, which compiles information about municipal broadband initiatives across the country. The goal is to create a comprehensive resource for community organizers. Users can explore the projects in different states through the Community Network map.
One of the biggest obstacles organizers are likely to face are laws discouraging or preventing governments from competing with private broadband providers. So far 19 states have passed such laws.
“It strikes me as crazy that some states are banning communities from building or expanding existing networks, even as we’re subsidizing private companies,” Mitchell said.
He says these laws actually end up preventing incumbent providers from expanding higher speed internet services in many areas, because they know their existing legacy services won’t face competition.