The Orlando Sentinel published this op-ed about local government action for broadband networks on March 11, 2015.
Local governments should make broadband choices
By Christopher Mitchell
Community broadband must be a local choice, a guest columnist writes.
When Comcast announced plans last year to invest hundreds of millions in theme parks in Florida and California, its customers may have wondered why the cable giant wasn't using those funds to deliver a faster or more reliable Internet connection. While Comcast's Universal Studios faces competition from Walt Disney World, most people don't have a real choice in high-speed Internet access.
The Federal Communications Commission has just boosted the broadband definition from 4 megabits per second to 25 mbps. At that speed, some 75 percent of Americans have no choice in providers — they are stuck with one or none.
The rest of America is living in the future, often because their local government rolled up its sleeves and got involved. In some of these communities, the local government built its own network and others worked with a trusted partner. Chattanooga's city-owned electric utility built the nation's first citywide gigabit network, which is about 100 times faster than the average connection today.
Google is famously working with some bigger cities, whereas local provider GWI in Maine has partnered with several local governments to expand gigabit access.
However, the big cable and telephone companies have almost always refused to work with local governments. Instead, they've lobbied states to restrict the right of local governments to build or partner in this essential infrastructure.
In Florida, the law puts restrictions on local governments that do not apply to the private sector, such as a strict profitability timetable that can be unrealistic for large capital investments regardless of being privately or publicly owned. Some 20 states have such barriers that limit competition by effectively taking the decision away from communities.
In January, President Obama spoke out in favor of local governments being able to make these investments and partnerships without state interference. He was in Cedar Falls, Iowa, which has one of the oldest municipal broadband networks in the country, but it's the first city in the state with citywide gigabit access. A local business owner, whose business had been able to thrive in its hometown due to the public network and its world-class access, introduced the president.
Both Obama and the FCC are taking actions to remove barriers to local authority, but they are seeing strong opposition from some Republicans in Washington, D.C.
National Republicans may be less likely to support an effort that Obama has now championed. But they can't just oppose the president; they will have to oppose their own base, which tends to believe decisions should be made locally. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance analyzed all citywide municipal networks, over 150 communities, and found more than 70 percent reliably vote Republican.
It may be surprising, but at the local level, there tends to be little partisan divide over whether local governments should get involved in a service so dominated by big monopolies. In the city council, it is a practical matter: Do local businesses have the connections they need to be competitive? If not, how can we make sure they do?
A bipartisan group of mayors has already come together to form Next Century Cities, a collaborative nonpartisan organization that includes a diverse group of cities. Some own and operate their own networks, as in Opelika, Ala. Some are working with partners, as Kansas City does. Some, as in Ammon, Idaho, can be hard to find on a map. And then there are cities like Los Angeles that recognize they need something better also.
Fortunately, Florida's law has slowed but not stopped smart local approaches. Martin County built a fiber network that has saved millions of dollars in connections for public facilities and is used by health-care facilities. The city of Palm Coast's FiberNET has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars for the community, while dramatically improving connections for the Flagler County School District and other entities.
Building a modern fiber-optic network is no theme-park ride, but hundreds of local governments have already demonstrated it is well within their capacity. And given that they have to live with the consequences of action or inaction, shouldn't it be their decision?
Christopher Mitchell is the director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis.