Expanding community broadband
Internet connectivity is the driving force of the 21st century. From how we learn, to how we work, to how we socialize, having access to high-speed internet at an affordable rate is key to succeeding in the modern era.
But many people don’t have the access they need or can’t afford to receive it. In 2016 10 percent of Americans couldn’t access broadband internet at their home, and 33 percent of American’s don’t have broadband in their home, generally due to cost.
Meanwhile local and innovative businesses don’t have the speeds they need at affordable prices. As business becomes increasingly digital America’s companies are becoming less able to compete with high-speed countries such as South Korea and Japan.
This is because large internet service providers service markets, creating either a natural or government imposed monopoly on cities. These companies are generally able to charge anything they want for internet services, taking millions of dollars away from the local families and small businesses that most need them.
Cities themselves can choose to create a city-wide municipal internet solution and charge much less than the large internet companies. They can also put in solutions for low income residents, such as free internet or wireless internet into their homes as a result. This allows taxpayers to control internet more as a necessary utility, as opposed to a for-profit venture.
It also keeps the money in the community. The first city to do this was Chattanooga, Tennessee who saw long term savings as well as a new revenue stream from these users. They were able to reinvest that money back into their citizens, instead of sending it away to one of the big internet giants.
Studies have shown large increases in economic development, housing prices, and job growth, but is inconclusive on poverty reduction. A study by the University of Tennessee found that Chattanooga’s internet system brought in between $865.3 million and $1.3 billion in economic development and between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs.
A study by the Analysis Group found that bringing fiber optic high, speed internet to the home increased per capita GDP by 1.1 percent and brought in $1.4 billion of economic growth to the cities this was done in.
Advocacy in Action
Lafayette Pro-Fiber was a citizen led initiative that started in coffee shops around Lafayette Louisiana with the goal of bringing affordable, high-speed gigabit internet to everyone through a city run internet providers. After getting the support of leaders from the business community, african american community, and major anchor institutions they pressed the city to begin studying the options. The city voted to bring it to a ballot referendum, which was heavily opposed by the large service providers Cox and Bellsouth who spent millions to defeat the initiative. The initiative won, however, and Lafayette has seen billions in economic development as a result. You can learn more from one of the key leaders of the initiative, John St. Juliun, on an interview from the Broadband Bits Podcast.
Video: How Chattanooga got the Fastest Internet in America
Government shouldn’t be competing with the private sector when we already have internet providers here in our area. It will be far too expensive to expand internet to everyone, and for no good reason. We should work with the providers we have now and make small, incremental steps to solving this problem, not full city owned internet expansion.
Internet access in the 21st century is a necessity, not a luxury. We need to do everything we can to ensure that people receive affordable, next generation, high-speed internet access or we will be left behind. Cities around the country are getting 1 gigabit speeds for affordable prices, and if we don’t keep up we will be left behind. There is a monopoly in our city, and if we don’t invest we will never have more options than the high prices and poor service we have now.
How To Pass It
These policies are passed almost entirely by cities, so your city council is the main organization you’ll be lobbying. There are a number of ways cities start this process. Many decide to put together a task force to set goals and assess needs, or do an internal needs assessment to see where the most need for internet is.
Invariably, before moving forward cities conduct a feasibility study on expansion using either fully public or a public/private partnership model. This can range anywhere from 50k – 170k.
From here cities can either begin a slow rollout of broadband, or do a pilot project before a full roll out.
What You Can Do
Decide if this is better served being led by an activist initiative or by an elected official. Reach out to city commissioners or the mayor about the solutions and results other cities have had in expanding city wide internet. The mayor or other commissioners may champion the issue and begin the process of researching it.
If elected officials aren’t interested in leading on this begin lobbying and pressing the city commission to commission a feasibility study. Local tech groups, business organizations, social justice organizations, and others may be interested in taking part in this. Get the item on the agenda and press the commissioners to move forward at each of the key junctions.
If full internet expansion doesn’t seem likely the city could start by simply connecting anchor institutions or laying dark fiber to offices within the city, which can begin the groundwork of municipal expansion later.
- Community Net Toolkit – MuniNetworks
- Connecting 21st Century Communities: A Policy Agenda for Broadband Stakeholders – Next Century Cities
- The City That Was Saved by Internet – Motherboard
- How Activists Passed Municipal Broadband in Lafayette -Broadband Bits Podcast
- Paying to Win at the Broadband Ballot Box – Gigabit Nation