As we monitored Georgia's HB 282, a bill to limit the capacity of local governments to invest in Internet networks that spur economic development, we learned of many existing networks that have helped communities to thrive.
Brian Thompson, Director of Electric and Telecommunications in Monroe took some time to tell us a little about their city network. Located in the north central section of Georgia, with a population of 13,000, the network now offers triple play services to residents and businesses. Its network started in the 1970s with a municipal cable tv network. Today, the network is a hybrid with fiber having been added as an expansion to its cable network.
Monroe's investment in its fiber began as a way to improve connections for education. The Walton County School District could not find a private provider willing to collaborate on an affordable network between school facilities. The city took on the challenge and built a point-to-point network which the School District paid for in 10 years. In the mean time, the city expanded its network in other areas. Now, the Walton County Schools have gig service between facilities and to the Internet. The District pays only $500 per month for a service that would cost five times more from a private provider.
Thompson also confirmed what we hear from other communities with publicly owned networks - prices for business and residential services are very competitive and service is superior. He notes that customers often express appreciation for local representatives, rather than dealing with a huge bureaucracy like those at Verizon or AT&T. New connections can be created in a matter of hours or days instead of weeks.
Residential service for Internet access from MonroeAccess.Net includes affordable basic service (1 Mbps / 256 Kbps) for $21.95 per month. Two faster tiers include $34.95 (6 Mbps / 512 Kbps) and $44.95 (15 Mbps / 1 Mbps). Cable tv rates vary from $15.50 to $62.95 per month and residential phone service starts at $29.95 per month. Thompson notes that, when Monroe added phone service, rates dropped for every one regardless of carrier.
There are over 100 fiber customers and the network has been critical for economic security. T1 connections for businesses used to go for $1,000 per month; now higher capacity connections cost $250. Notable customers include Minerva, a beauty salon supplier with a large showroom and distribution center in Minerva. The multi-million dollar salon equipment company has headquarters in China but has nearly 30,000 customers in the U.S. Company owners required a fiber connection to communicate with the facility in real time. Monroe was happy to oblige.
Monroe is also home to a Hitachi plant that makes parts for several auto companies. The fiber network allows the plant to communicate efficiently with the Hitachi headquarters located in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The plant employs about 250 people.
Monroe never borrowed or bonded to build out its network. Thompson tells us the network has always progressed slowly and community leaders leverage partnerships with local interests along the way. The city used its capital investment fund for initial construction and continues to expand slowly with revenue obtained from offering services. Thompson tells us that their approach works for Monroe and shudders at the thought of legislators in Atlanta claiming otherwise.
Monroe's network travels well outside the city limits, over a nine county area, and HB 282 could have put an end to its expansion. Fortunately the bill was defeated on the House floor and for at least one more year, this community does not have to worry that the state will revoke its power to encourage economic development locally.