The Promise of Municipal Broadband

Publication Date: 
August 1, 2008
Author(s): 
Craig Aaron

This article from Craig Aaron is a good introduction to some of the key concepts in community broadband, including understanding the difference between wireless and wired approaches.

One tech writer dismissed municipal wireless as “the monorail of the decade.”

But all the obituaries are premature. A closer look at what’s happening at projects across the country—public and private, wired and wireless, big and small—suggests that it’s far too early to start the funeral arrangements. Much of the media are confusing the collapse of one company—or one model of broadband deployment—with the failure of the entire idea of municipalities providing high-speed Internet services.

“It’s like someone striking out in a boat in 1490, it sinking, and people saying, ‘You know what? This whole ocean travel thing isn’t going to work out,’ ” says Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a Minneapolis-based research group that tracks municipal projects.

And on the matter of what we could do...

Policymakers could create incentives for local communities to build telecom networks, spurring new competition and growing the new market for entrepreneurs and innovators, especially in areas bypassed or underserved by the big phone and cable companies. Better yet, says Asheville’s Bowen, these incentives could mandate that systems be locally controlled and nonprofit, ensuring that the investment stays in the community.

Yet, fourteen states currently have laws on the books—drafted by phone and cable company lobbyists—restricting municipalities from erecting their own broadband systems. The Community Broadband Act, bipartisan legislation that already passed the Senate Commerce Committee, would tear down the roadblocks. “The first thing we have to do,” Mitchell says, “is make sure that communities that want to solve their own problems, that want to build the network they need, can do that.”

Congress and the Federal Communications Commission also could improve municipal wireless by setting aside a greater portion of the airwaves for public use. Wi-Fi systems operate on narrow “junk bands” already cluttered with cordless phones, baby monitors, and the like, requiring more transmitters and higher costs to set up a network.

The Progressive