This article was originally published in Fast Company on January 19th, 2018.
Rural communities seeking better broadband have options beyond big telecom.
This past August, the residents of the Republican-leaning Michigan town of Lyndon Township overwhelmingly voted to raise their property taxes. What spurred this rural community to violate the core Republican tenant of minimal taxation?
Lack of high-speed internet access.
Speedy internet connections are easy to come by in cities and sprawling suburbs where big cable and telephone monopolies can expect a large return on their investment. But in many rural areas of the country, high-speed internet access is sparse–39% of rural Americans flat-out do not have broadband access.
That’s why Lyndon Township’s residents decided to fund a 3 million dollar broadband project, which increased their property taxes by over $20 per month on average. The end result will be a locally owned network offering a basic 100 Mbps fiber-to-the-home service, which is faster and more reliable than most cable services. As Ben Fineman, president of the Michigan Broadband Cooperative explained, “for people in a rural area, that’s far and away better than anything they can get today.”
This approach isn’t unique: At least 500 other counties and towns in the U.S. have taken steps to end their dependence on monopoly ISPs. Wilson, North Carolina, built their own fiber-optic network and high-speed internet service, defining it as a municipal utility like water or electricity. Westminster, Maryland, entered into an equitable public-private partnership where they own the fiber network infrastructure and lease portions of it to an independent ISP.
But most rural communities still have extremely limited and poor broadband options, if any at all. Only half of American households have access to two or more broadband providers. In Michigan, AT&T owns the majority of the market and is often the only ISP available. These minimally competitive regional markets leave monopoly ISPs with little incentive to improve service or lower prices. It’s an oligopoly, comprised of the nation’s largest telecommunication companies.