Welcome to In Our View. From time to time, we use this space to explore new ideas and share our thoughts on recent events playing out across the digital landscape, as well as take the opportunity to draw attention to important but neglected broadband-related issues.
As federal funds to expand high-speed Internet access began to flow to states and local communities through the American Rescue Plan Act, and with billions more coming under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Big Telecom is beginning to mount its expected opposition campaign designed to discourage federal (and state) decision-makers from prioritizing the building of publicly-owned networks.
Predictably, a centerpiece of this anti-municipal broadband campaign is the trotting out of well-worn - and thoroughly debunked - talking points, arguing that federal funding rules should not “encourage states to favor entities like non-profits and municipalities when choosing grant winners” because of their “well-documented propensity to fail at building and maintaining complex networks over time.” That’s what USTelecom, a trade organization representing big private Internet Service Providers (including the monopolies) wrote in a memo sent last week to President Biden, the FCC, cabinet secretaries, House and Senate members, Tribal leaders, as well as state broadband offices.
Part of the impetus, no doubt, was the flood of responses to the NTIA’s Notice and Request for Comment (including ours) documenting the need for community-driven solutions in this once-in-a-generation investment that could close the digital divide forever. That’s if we don’t just give billions in taxpayer dollars to huge monopolies in the hope that they’ll suddenly decide to build connections to the households in their territory that they’ve been ignoring for years despite getting billions of dollars already via the deeply flawed Connect America Fund.
Growing Municipal Broadband Utopia's
Meanwhile, municipal broadband projects that are “building and maintaining complex networks over time” abound, hitting new milestones of success each year, driven in part by local and regional governments’ desire to meet the demand for future-proof fiber connectivity and build more resilient telecommunications infrastructure.
“Fiber is in great demand by people looking to stream, game, work remotely, and to power Smart homes and devices. We’re rising to the occasion. In 2021, we added three new cities, made fiber available to 26,000 new homes, and laid 455 miles of fiber optic cable. That’s about the distance from Salt Lake City to the International Space Station and back,” Roger Timmerman, UTOPIA Fiber’s Executive Director, said as he looked back on the previous year.
UTOPIA (Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency) is actually one big shining counterpoint conspicuously missing from USTelecom’s memo. Once criticized for not being an overnight success story, UTOPIA is now celebrating its 12th consecutive year of growth. The largest - and one of the most successful - open access networks in the country, the Utah-based, publicly-owned fiber network uses the open access model to bring competition and choice to local markets previously dominated by monopoly Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
In other words, UTOPIA builds the infrastructure and allows private ISPs to lease the network to offer services to end-users with residential Internet services starting at $60/month for 250 Mbps symmetrical connections and speeds of up to 10 Gbps being offered by 16 local providers.
First created in 2004 by a coalition of Utah municipalities, UTOPIA builds and maintains “complex networks over time” that provides high-performance, reliable fiber infrastructure now serving more than 130,000 businesses and residences in over 50 local communities. Since its founding, UTOPIA has designed, built, and operated close to $400 million worth of fiber network infrastructure across Utah and a handful of other western states.
In just the last year, UTOPIA has laid 2.4 million feet of fiber, or close to 40 miles per month.
The growth of UTOPIA in providing even more choice for end-users through partnerships with private-sector Internet Service Providers (ISPs) is encouraging. Last year, three more private ISPs joined the network (ConnectFast, The Telecom Company, and Miles Broadband), bringing the total number of providers using the network to 16.
But, as UTOPIA noted in a recent press release, “perhaps the biggest change in 2021 was that 65% of new subscribers on the UTOPIA Fiber network selected speeds of 1 Gbps or higher—a significant jump from 48% a year ago.”
If you look at the operation by the numbers, here is a snapshot of what UTOPIA is celebrating:
- 1.33 million feet of underground conduit installed
- 2.4 million feet of fiber cable placed
- 24 new footprints released
- 25,994 new homes able to connect
- 7,479 new residential subscribers
- 139 new anchor institutions and schools
- 505 new business connections
- 2 new fully-connected cities (Payson and Midvale)
- 3 new cities joined the network (Bozeman, Pleasant Grove, and Syracuse)
- 13 new employees
Municipal Broadband Success Stories
Of course, the success of municipal broadband goes far beyond UTOPIA Fiber. As we synopsized in this fact sheet here, the success stories range far and wide. So as the big monopoly incumbents ramp up their anti-competition rhetoric and advocacy, it’s worth reminding the 93 percent of Americans who use the Internet of the triumphs of municipal broadband.
Bristol, Tennessee: Offering residential fiber service since 2005, the network saves city electric customers $6 million a year thanks to the installation of smart grid hardware and services.
Conway, Arkansas: Conway has been offering locally accountable broadband service for 25 years. More than 50 percent of businesses and 75 percent of households in the city are using the service.
Chattanooga, Tennessee: The municipal broadband utility EPB Fiber has returned almost $2.7 billion on an original investment of $220 million over the last ten years and has launched an historic program to connect 17,000 households of low-income student households to free high-quality Internet access for ten years using city-owned fiber.
East Central Vermont Fiber: Cooperation between 31 member towns and the formation of the state’s first Communication Union District has seen more than 1,000 miles of fiber deployed, bringing future-proof connectivity to thousands of households. A true grassroots effort, EC Fiber connects schools in 22 towns and provides service where the market has refused to go.
Fairlawn, Ohio: FairlawnGig has brought economic development and a boost in real estate value since launching in 2017. Dozens of businesses have made it known that the city broadband network was either the reason they moved to Fairlawn or the reason they have stayed and are able to remain competitive. One of the region’s Chief Economic Officers credits FairlawnGig with driving development in a local business park with 800 jobs and $85 million in promised investment.
Longmont, Colorado: Named the fastest broadband network in the country in 2018, Longmont’s NextLight network has a 58 percent take rate even in a market in which they are competing with Comcast and Lumen (CenturyLink).
Reedsburg, Wisconsin: Reedsburg began connecting its public schools and utility substations all the way back in 1998, but almost immediately businesses began asking to join. Reedsburg brought gigabit Internet access to residents (for just $45/month), and has begun expanding to surrounding communities that have been asking for service.
Wilson, North Carolina: The first gigabit community in the state thanks to its citywide fiber network, Wilson has continued to bring value to residents while also serving as a pioneer. The network now helps run fiber training classes at the local community college, offers $10/month, 40 Mbps symmetrical Internet access connections to public housing households, developed an innovative pay-ahead option for households with poor credit, connects the biggest employers in the community, created the Gig East Exchange, and has lured many companies to town to take advantage of the network.
Competition to Fix a Broken Marketplace
It’s not hard to imagine why this memo from “America’s Broadband Providers” includes such strong language. Monopoly cable and telephone companies have enjoyed captured markets where they face no competition for decades. So when they argue that “the most important decision a community can make is to partner with experienced providers,” what they’re really saying is “we don’t want to compete.” And when they argue that for-profit solutions are the only path “to provide communities [with] modern, reliable connectivity well into the future,” what they hope is that we’ll forget about the millions of Americans living in monopoly territory whose connections have been allowed to degrade without necessary investments and therefore push back on the idea that the broken marketplace is capable of maintaining network infrastructure that is either “modern” or “reliable.”
This is all evidence of why, contrary to the anti-competition rhetoric and racket being ran by a consortium of monopoly ISPs, it does makes sense to “encourage states to favor entities like non-profits and municipalities when choosing grant winners” because of their well-documented propensity to succeed at “building and maintaining complex networks over time.”