Community Broadband

Date: 15 Jan 2009 | posted in: information, MuniNetworks | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

The U.S. has fallen behind other countries both in the percentage of our population that has access to high-speed Internet connections, and in what we consider “high speed.”  Almost all homes and businesses in Japan and South Korea have access to connections that are literally thousands of times faster – for which they pay considerably less than do we.

Realizing that broadband is to this century what electricity and phones were to the last, many communities are building their own telecommunications systems just as they once provided their own electricity infrastructure. The vast majority of public electrical utilities in the U.S. are located in cities with fewer than 10,000 residents, and some serve just hundreds of homes. These municipal utilities are in a unique position to provide these services because they have earned the trust of their community and have some relevant expertise in building/maintaining networks.  A modern broadband network differs in many ways from providing electricity, but municipal utilities across the country have proved they can build and maintain fiber-to-the-home networks.

Some communities have pursued wired networks, often in the form of fiber-to-the-home systems (the gold standard in networking) whereas others have built wireless systems.  We believe these technologies are complimentary, not substitutes and that communities ultimately need both.  Fiber optic networks offer the most reliable and fastest speeds whereas wireless solves mobility needs.  Investments in fiber-optic networks are long term investments, often lasting for many decades and forming a potential base for wireless solutions.  

But private cable TV and telephone companies – who are often loathe to make these investments – are lobbying state legislatures to eliminate competition from any publicly owned entity.  The cost of these networks and long payback period make little sense for private companies that seek to maximize short term profits.  Unfortunately, fourteen states either ban or restrict municipal telecommunications utilities, which means their communities may be the last to get modern networks.

(The American Public Power Association maintains a list of State Barriers to Community Broadband Services. )

Despite these efforts, community broadband networks are thriving in communities across the country. Burlington, Vermont (see our Case Study and Fact Sheet), has built an advanced fiber-to-the-home network that offers television (everything from HDTV to a greater channel selection than the competition, including extra local content), phone services, and Internet connectivity (at speeds previously unavailable in the community while keeping prices below the competition).  The network has also greatly increased the broadband speeds available to the local government and schools while greatly cutting telecom expenditures).  

In May 1999, after three years of lobbying by the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga and the Tennessee Municipal Power Association, the Tennessee State Legislature reversed Tennessee’s ban, allowing public utilities to provide cable television, Internet and telephone services.  Now Chattanooga’s MetroNet, operated by the Electric Power Board, makes it one of only a few mid-sized cities with very high-speed digital data transfer as part of its municipal telecommunications infrastructure.

Chaska, Minnesota’s municipally owned and managed wireless network went live in November 2004. The city invested about $800,000 in the wireless network, which covers all 15 square miles of the suburban-fringe community. It offers an Internet connection for just $17 per month for homes, and starting at $25 per month for businesses. More than 20 percent of the city’s residents are subscribers. In an interview with The Future of Wireless, Chaska’s Information Services manager advised other cities, “Do not underestimate the amount of customers you will have.”

In addition to broadening access, competition from municipal telecommunications providers has been shown to lower consumer rates. For instance, Chattanooga, TN and Glasgow, KY are both served by a private cable company, Comcast. But Glasgow’s public power company began cable TV service ten years ago. As a result, Comcast’s rates in Glasgow are 1/3 less than rates in Chattanooga.

Community Broadband networks hire locally and keep support jobs in town, not offshore.  Revenues stay in the community – net income can be used to better the community or go into supporting local community media.  

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Christopher Mitchell

Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He runs as part of ILSR's effort to ensure broadband networks are directly accountable to the communities that depend upon them.

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