Your City Can Provide Better, Cheaper Internet

23 February 2017

Municipal Internet (or, depending on the technology, “municipal fiber”, or “municipal broadband”) is an Internet service provider run partly or entirely by by local governments - usually on a city or county level. Being run with involvement from the local government means municipal Internet can be provided at a much lower cost, or in some cases even for free while being better tailored to the local community’s needs. Areas that provide municipal Internet often are able to provide more equal access to the Internet and better connectivity. To top it off, areas that have built municipal networks have attracted high tech companies and have experienced local economic development, providing more value to the community.

Large telecoms such as Time Warner, Verizon, and the like exist as huge, near-monopolistic companies. When it comes to their policies, there is no way to vote with your wallet and switch providers; most people have only one to two Internet providers available to them. This means that as these huge companies grow in size and profits, it’s difficult for communities to make their needs heard. They aren’t interested in providing the best service for the communities they serve, just good enough service that people are willing to pay their prices. We see these companies do this already, albeit not always with Internet. Currently, there’s an ongoing battle with Optimum (which is a major cable, phone, and Internet provider in Connecticut and some surrounding areas) because they dropped a major state news network, WFSB. These companies exist at such a large scale that those battles don’t matter to them, so long as they can still sell their service. Municipal internet services are very different - they are run by the local government, which answers directly to the community. This is even more important in rural areas, where telecoms have been known to try to charge upwards of $20,000 to connect properties to the Internet.

Municipal Internet can be far less expensive. Chattanooga, Tennessee has a municipal fiber network operated by a local power company. They offer a 100Mbps base Internet package - which is ten times faster (or more) than the majority of the Internet access in the United States for $57 per month. That price is half of what Comcast charges for the same speed in some areas, and in places where Comcast charges similar prices, there are data caps that apply (which raise the cost-per-gig of service substantially). Sandy, Oregon offers municipal Internet as well, charging $40 for similar service. Other municipal governments provide Internet access free of charge based on income levels, or even to everyone. The success stories from places like Chattanooga and Sandy show that when done correctly, the speed of service can also be better - Chattanooga offers a peak package of 10-gigabit-per-second service which is over 30 times faster than Time Warner Cable’s peak service (300Mbps).

Although taxpayer-funded networks come at a cost to taxpayers, the fact that they are taxpayer funded allows service to be substantially cheaper and as such can provide huge economic benefits. Not all municipal networks are taxpayer funded, however. Sandy, Oregon for example, is not. Others, such as Chattanooga’s or Monroe County, New York’s (which is not currently used to provide municipal Internet service) are. Since making their municipal network available Chattanooga has attracted dozens of high-tech companies to the city which provide job opportunities and additional tax revenue. Municipal service can also provide more equal access to the Internet, making it easier for low-income people to have access to the same information and job opportunities as other households.

Municipal Internet projects are not without their problems; there have been expensive failures such as UTOPIA in Utah, and in Philly, and there are legal hurdles brought on by telecom lobbying. However, we have successful models to follow and lessons learned from failures. In places like Monroe County, the infrastructure has even already been built, piggybacked on routine infrastructure maintenance. Already, at least 450 communities have some form of municipal network. Providing less expensive Internet provides better, more equal access to information (and with the growth of online courses from colleges, education), more business, and more tax revenue.

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