Comcast, Verizon, AT&T: Watch out. In order to increase competition and expand high-speed Internet access to areas without, the Federal Communications Commission is set to vote next week to support the rights of cities to create their own fiber networks.
Hundreds of communities have already built their own public broadband infrastructure in the U.S., or pursued public-private partnerships. Some public projects have been big successes, helping small cities save money, attract new businesses with high-speed access, and better serve all residents. Others have failed to stay afloat, or have become case studies in “lessons learned.” (See Provo, Utah’s project or Burlington, Vermont’s).
But in 19 states, the telecom and cable industry has convinced legislatures to pass laws that block a city’s right to experiment with community broadband at all. This has left many communities with whatever quality and price of service that TimeWarner, or Verizon, or Comcast chooses to offer–and since three-quarters of U.S. homes have no competitive choice for high-speed service, according FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, that means they’re basically stuck.
The FCC, urged by President Obama in a speech in January, seem poised to change that next week in response to petitions from Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Both of these cities started successful public Internet utilities, but later laws in their states stopped them from expanding service to neighboring communities. The industry, and many of it political backers, have argued that the government shouldn’t be in the business of competing directly with private enterprise, and that such efforts are a waste of taxpayer money.
If the vote goes along party lines as expected, the FCC will vote 3-2 to support community broadband and preempt the industry-backed state laws. The vote would only change the situation in North Carolina and Tennessee, but it sets the precedent that laws in the rest of the states could also be overturned and represents a general change in tone about municipal fiber. In President Obama’s January speech, he also outlined a series of steps the administration will take to spur local initiatives that expand affordabke high-speed Internet.
“The number of municipal networks is really poised to explode,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “There’s not one model that we’re expecting to see, but as a result of this, we’re expecting cities to take a larger role.” In addition to government actions, he credits Google Fiber–which although a private service and only available in a few cities–for showing other communities what is possible and giving them leverage to demand better from their providers or build their own networks.
Today’s debates have a historical precedent in the time when electricity was still a new technology changing how the world worked. “We saw all the same arguments 100 years ago that we’re seeing today–often verbatim,” Mitchell says.
At first only private companies offered service to businesses and individuals who could pay a lot. Soon, states and the federal government recognized that everyone should have a basic level of service, and began subsidizing both public and private infrastructure to expand access, opening up service to a number of different business models. Today, the federal government and some states are beginning to think the same way about broadband, such as Minnesota, with a new $20 million fund, or New York, with a $500 million fund, both announced this year.
“We saw the Internet was moving from a nicety to a necessity,” says Mitchell, speaking about why his organization is so heavily involved in the issue of community broadband. “But we realized that cities had no power to compel existing providers to do a good job.”