Hundreds of communities across the United States are considering municipal fiber network projects. Nearly all will have to start from scratch, spending years building the network and attracting users before it is useful. Mooresville and Davidson have a historic opportunity to invest in the future while skipping the grunt work.
Thanks to the foresight of those who negotiated Adelphia’s cable franchise, Mooresville and Davidson can purchase the existing network and upgrade it to fit community needs.
Contrary to what some have claimed, owning this network is the proper role for government. Much like electricity 100 years ago, broadband networks are essential for progress. Municipal governments must ensure their residents and businesses are wired to compete in the modern world.
Hundreds of governments have stopped begging cable and telephone companies for faster networks and started investing in municipal networks to ensure high-quality, universal broadband service at reasonable costs. These networks encourage more efficient city services and increase economic development. Most importantly, a public network can be designed to maximize the benefit to the community, rather than to distant shareholders.
Almost 200 cities own their own broadband networks. None with whom we have spoken, even given the inevitable bumps and bruises that occurred in the start-up stage, wishes it had made a different decision. Cedar Falls, Iowa, offers a good example. In 1996, the city of 36,000 people decided to build a fiber/cable network. Now 85 percent of subscribers in that community use that network, which is on track to pay off the debt five years ahead of schedule.
More importantly to some, the Cedar Falls network will be carrying the new Big Ten network on expanded cable, whereas their competitors want to carry it as a special package that costs extra. The locally owned network knows how important Hawkeye football and basketball are to the community.
Burlington, Vt., is another example. This city of 39,000 has a fiber system that reserves several extra channels for local programming. Those channels can be used for high school sports, local arts and advertising community businesses. The potential use of publicly owned systems is limited only by local ingenuity, not how much of a profit each channel can generate. Once Burlington’s system is paid off, it will generate some $15 million each year for the town’s general fund, an important new source of revenue for increasingly financially strapped cities.
Much of the focus of the discussion in Mooresville is on cable television. That misses the larger power of this network. Fiber-optic networks are called the "gold standard" because they endure for decades. Their capacity for upgrade is nearly endless, the amount of information they can carry is boundless.
Though the United States as a whole has dropped behind many other developed nations in access to fast broadband, municipalities that invest in these networks remain globally competitive because they can offer both businesses and residents faster speeds at lower prices than most American cities. When Nucomm chose Lafayette, La., to host a call center with 1,000 new jobs with benefits, they explicitly cited the city’s municipal fiber network as a deciding factor.
Mooresville and Davidson’s plans to acquire and expand the network will announce to the business community that they are prepared for the future. They can guarantee a fast and affordable network rather than hoping that what is best for Time Warner is best for the community.