Slate, August 1, 2012
Imagine paying $40 per gallon of gasoline when people in neighboring towns are paying $4. Or paying $8 per kilowatt-hour for electricity when others were paying 8 cents. Unthinkable! But this stark disparity is commonplace when it comes to paying for Internet access in the United States. As the recent report “The Cost of Connectivity” from the New America Foundation (a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense) documents, something is fundamentally wrong with our broadband.
Businesses and households without fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet are tremendously disadvantaged in the modern economy. And the gap between the most connected and least connected communities is actually getting worse. Some homeowners in North Carolina are reluctant to publicly discuss their total lack of broadband access due to fears of being unable to later sell their property.
When one looks at how the United States is doing internationally, it’s clear that our broadband policies over the past decade have been an abject failure. In a single generation, the United States has gone from No. 1 in the world across a range of broadband metrics to middling—a staggeringly fast fall. Today, we pay far more for far slower speeds in far fewer places than a growing list of other countries.
In the meantime, local communities are taking matters into their own hands and have created remarkable citywide fiber-to-the-home broadband networks. Many offer services directly to residents, providing a much-needed alternative to the cable and telephone companies. And by creating meaningful consumer choice among competitors, these networks are driving lower prices—spurring new investment and creating new jobs—and keeping more money circulating in the local economy.
Approaches vary from neighborhood wireless networks to the ubiquitous fiber-optic connections in Chattanooga, Tenn., the “gig city,” which has built the nation’s biggest municipally owned fiber-optic network. North Dakota now has one of the largest next-generation networks in the world, wiring more than 10,000 square miles of some of the most rural areas of the United States with connectivity that is superior to what’s available to the millions of people living in major nearby cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul.
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance recently released case studies of three of the most advanced networks in the nation: Chattanooga; Lafayette, La.; and Bristol, Va. Chattanooga has gained fame for being the first community in the United States with universal access to a 1-gigabit connection—speeds that are 100 times faster than an ordinary cable connection and 500 times faster than typical DSL. Bristol’s network has helped create thousands of new jobs since launching in 2003 and has never raised prices for its telephone or broadband service packages even though available speeds have been doubled several times since its founding. The base package of 6 megabits per second downstream and 1 Mbps upstream (a speed comparable to most DSL connections) is $26.36 per month and a cable-comparable 12 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up or 16 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up runs $35.16 and $39.56 respectively, well below comparable tiers from national cable companies. In a few short years, Lafayette’s network has resulted in hundreds of new jobs, millions of dollars in aggregate savings for the community, and the economic boost that local college graduates will be able to take advantage of the digital economy without having to leave Cajun Country.