Electronic Frontier Foundation, June 20, 2014
This weekend at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting in Dallas, some mayors will take a strong stand in support of net neutrality. According to an op-ed by Mayors Ed Lee of San Francisco and Ed Murray of Seattle, the city leaders are unveiling a resolution calling on the FCC to preserve an open Internet.
This is good and welcome news. The mayors get it: a free and open Internet is critically important for the health of U.S. cities. “The Internet has thrived because of its openness and equality of access,” reads the mayors’ op-ed. “It has spurred great innovation, while providing a level playing field for its users. It allows everyone the same chance to interact, to participate, to compete.”
Here’s some even better news: while the FCC may have a role to play in promoting and protecting a neutral Internet, city governments don’t have to rely entirely on the FCC. In fact, there are two things Mayor Lee can do right now to protect the future of our open Internet: strongly support municipal wireless and light up the dark fiber that weaves its way under the city of San Francisco. And other mayors around the country have the same opportunity, if they’ve got the will to take it.
Light up the Dark Fiber
“Dark fiber” refers to unused fiber optic lines already laid in cities around the country, intended to provide high speed, affordable Internet access to residents. In San Francisco alone, more than 110 miles of fiber optic cable run under the city. Only a fraction of that fiber network is being used.
And San Francisco isn’t alone. Cities across the country have invested in laying fiber to connect nonprofits, schools, and government offices with high-speed Internet.
Let’s take a look at Chattanooga,Tennessee, a city that has better broadband than San Francisco. Chattanooga is home to one of the nation’s least expensive, most robust municipally owned broadband networks. The city decided to build a high-speed network initially to meet the needs of the city’s electric company that needed a way to monitor new equipment being installed throughout Chatanooga. Then, the local government learned that the cable companies would not be upgrading their Internet service fast enough to meet the city’s needs. So the electric utility also became an ISP, and the residents of Chattanooga now have access to a gigabit (1,000 megabits) per second Internet connection. That’s far ahead of the average US connection speed, which typically clocks in at 9.8 megabits per second.
And in Missouri, the city of Springfield crafted laws to navigate around state restrictions on municipal broadband. Now Springfield provides its own access service, SpringNet, and is offering businesses high capacity fiber Internet service.
Unfortunately, many cities have faced serious barriers to their efforts to light up dark fiber or extend existing networks. Take Washington D.C., where the city’s fiber is bound up in a non-compete contract with Comcast, keeping the network from serving businesses and residents.
San Francisco doesn’t have the same kind of contractual barriers that D.C. has, but the city’s network is still under-used. San Francisco’s fiber connects important institutions like libraries, schools, public housing, and public wi-fi projects. However, according to Harvard University researcher Susan Crawford, San Francisco “has not yet cracked the nut of alternative community residential or business fiber access.”
Here, too, San Francisco is not alone. Right now 89 U.S. cities provide residents with high-speed home Internet. And dozens of cities across the country have the infrastructure, such as dark fiber, to either offer high-speed broadband Internet to residents or lease out the fiber to new Internet access providers to bring more competition to the marketplace. So the infrastructure to provide municipal alternatives is there in many places – we just need the will and savvy to make it a reality that works.
That said, the most outrageous barrier is a legal one: state laws, promoted by powerful incumbent Internet access providers, that impede competition by imposing restrictions on cities’ ability to grow broadband networks. Twenty states currently have laws that restrict or discourage municipalities and communities from building their own broadband networks.