Your City Can Provide Better, Cheaper Internet

23 February 2017

Updated 24 July 2017

Municipal Internet (or, depending on the technology, “municipal fiber”, “municipal broadband”, or “public broadband”) is Internet service provided partly or entirely by by local governments. Usually, the networks providing service as well as their backing companies, exist on a local level rather than national. Being run with involvement from the local government means such services can provide access to the web at a much lower cost or in some cases even for free while being better tailored to the local community’s needs. Areas that have built successful municipal networks often are able to provide more equal access to the Internet and better connectivity which can be a driving force in attracting high tech companies, economic development, and job growth.

In general, municipal Internet services are less expensive and much faster than their telecom alternatives which are the reason they can have dramatic impacts on their communities. An oft-cited example of a successful municipal network is in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There, an Internet provider option is EPB, which is an electric company. EPB offers a 100Mbps base Internet package which is ten times faster (or more) than the majority of the Internet access in the United States as of 2015. The price was half of what one other big-name ISP charged for similar speeds in certain areas, but without data caps which raise the cost-per-gig of service substantially.

Less expensive or not, the idea of paying for a network you might not use through additional taxes is a frequent complaint about municipal networks. This is a fair concern because the price tag of a successful network, such as Chattanooga’s, isn’t tiny — Chattanooga’s network came with a $330 million price tag. Failed networks, such as the UTOPIA project in Utah and another in Philadelphia have come with large taxpayer expenses as well. However, not all municipal Internet projects are taxpayer funded — take Sandy, Oregon’s which offers similar service as the network in Chattanooga but was funded by revenue bonds. Others, like the fiber network in Monroe County, New York (which currently is limited to government use) were built as tax-efficiently as possible, piggybacking on existing construction projects. Successful networks provide a good return on the investment no matter how they’re funded, which we can again look to Chattanooga for an example of.

Chattanooga has experienced what has been referred to as an “economic rebirth,” transforming them from a fairly no-name city to a technology hub. A boom in business has brought the city’s unemployment rate down from 7.8% to 4.1% alongside an increase in average wages. A local tech incubator formed with the promise of fast, inexpensive, and reliable Internet. And, the city’s downtown residents doubled with housing that in some cases offers free access to the Chattanooga network as an amenity. Of course, more equal access allows for people to be more informed and better educated, with access to news, online courses, and everything else the web has to offer.

At least 500 communities in the U.S. provide some form of municipal network, including Chattanooga, Tennessee and Sandy, Oregon. Not all local governments are equipped or willing to build municipal networks, however, but volunteers can sidestep them to build their own.

Taxpayer funded or otherwise, there are clear benefits to public broadband and there are successful examples of how to implement such a network. There are ways to cut the costs of building a reliable network by using wireless technologies or mesh networks. Regardless, better access provides better opportunities and better equality. If nothing else, a municipal network adds competition for larger ISPs which can help drive down pricing and improve service even for those not using the municipal option.

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