On November 29, 2010, MPR published our commentary about community broadband. The Twin Cities has slower and more expensive broadband Internet than the nearby town of Monticello. The Twin Cities metro area has a population of 2.8 million and the highest density of people and businesses in the state. So why is our broadband Internet slower and more expensive than that enjoyed by Monticello, population 12,000? Several years ago, the city of Monticello (45 miles northwest of Minneapolis) recognized the increasing importance of reliable, high speed, low cost broadband. After the incumbent telephone and cable companies declined to build the network city leaders had in mind, the community decided to build one itself. Now, FiberNet Monticello offers some of the best broadband packages available in the country, while the Twin Cities is lagging. A new analysis by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance compares the available broadband speeds in Monticello to those available in the Twin Cities metro. In the metro, as in most of the United States, broadband subscribers choose between DSL from the incumbent telephone company (Qwest) and cable broadband from the incumbent cable company (Comcast). Monticello's offerings are faster at every price point, but Comcast appears to offer comparable downstream speeds in the highest tier of service. This apparent equivalence, however, is like comparing dirt roads with interstates. Both are roads that allow you to travel from point A to B, but they have fundamentally different characteristics in carrying capacity and reliability. For a variety of reasons, DSL and cable almost always fall short (and often, well short) of the advertised "up to" speeds, whereas full fiber networks regularly achieve the speeds they promise. In the metro, cable offers most residents the fastest option for broadband, but only one choice of provider. The Monticello network not only created a new choice for its residents, it induced the incumbent telephone company to greatly upgrade its network to remain competitive. Now, Monticello residents can choose between two extremely fast broadband providers, as well as a cable internet connection. The community-owned network may have only been the third broadband option, but it fundamentally changed the market. Prior to Monticello's investment, residents and small businesses had access only to asymmetrical broadband...Read more
We have a piece published on Alternet about the battle to maintain an open Internet and proper access to it.
A battle is raging for control of the Internet and it is not taking place in Washington. Scores of cities, fed up with the recalcitrance and outright arrogance of their providers and Washington’s lack of action are taking their information future into their own hands by building their own high-speed networks. To Harold DePriest, head of Chattanooga’s municipally owned fiber network, currently the largest in the country, the issue is clear: “Does our community control our own fate or does someone else control it?” He who owns the information highways makes the rules of the road. Today those rules are made by a handful of global corporations with little public oversight.
Photo used under Creative Commons License - Courtesy, Baldinger
Though we certainly support the FCC's reclassification of broadband to ensure companies like Comcast do not interfere with the open Internet, we focus on policy at the community level. We fully support the efforts of organizations and people in DC to work at the federal level.
But for those who are utterly baffled at the questions being raised the the last 15 years of Internet policy, I strongly recommend a recent op-ed by Wally Bowen: "FCC needs to rethink broadband regulation."
The stakes are high. The Internet's explosive growth – and the spectacular innovation it spawned – were enabled by common-carrier rules that still govern the nation's dial-up telephone networks.
Before 2002, online users were at the center of the Internet and World Wide Web, free to choose among competing ISPs, and free to roam and innovate. With the removal of common-carrier rules, the cable and telephone companies occupied the center of a broadband-driven Web, free to pick winners and losers among innovators (e.g. AT&T's exclusive iPhone deal with Apple) – and free to dictate when and where broadband access will be deployed.
In short, the definitive battle for the future of the Internet is underway.
The Star Tribune ran my opinion piece on Monday, March 15
The vast majority of Minnesotans, like the rest of the country, are served by only two broadband suppliers: the cable or telephone company. These companies generally want to maintain their monopolies because they can postpone upgrades while keeping prices and profits high. Just about everyone else just wants a better choice among providers.
The result of this structure is that we pay much higher prices for slower internet connections than our peers in Europe and Asia.
Here in Minnesota, Monticello has broken the mold. It has transitioned from relying on an overpriced and slow DSL network to now offering the best broadband in the entire state. Monticello residents can choose between a symmetrical 20 Mbps connection (extremely fast) from the City for $35/month or the incumbent telephone company’s new 50 Mbps downstream and 20 Mbps upstream option for $50/month. They have better packages than Comcast’s best residential offers in the Twin Cities – and available at half the price!
Entering the local telecommunications market is quite difficult. Building a network costs hundreds of millions for large cities and tens of millions for communities from 10,000 to 50,000. Once the network is built, the costs of adding new customers actually decreases as the number of subscribers increases. This cost structure gives incumbents tremendous advantages because they can drop their prices precipitously if a new entity – public or private – tries to build a competing network. To date, incumbents have largely succeeded in fending off competition.
Given the sorry state of broadband in many communities, especially rural ones, it should be no surprise that many cities and counties have started to build their own networks. And happily, they’ve done so with great success. Creating competition forces incumbents to invest and cut prices, generating significant community savings as well as other advantages from a network that operates in the public interest.
Unfortunately, there are additional barriers for communities attempting to build their own state-of-the-art broadband networks. As a result of lobbying by incumbents, some eighteen states have created obstacles to publicly owned networks.
The need for any state barrier to community networks is dubious. Most states see no need for...Read more
Community-owned broadband is one way to bring fiber to smaller markets, but many states restrict the practice. Researcher Christopher Mitchell argues that it's time for a bit more Roosevelt-style localism in US broadband.
Catching up a variety of recent stories:
An article from the Lafayette Advertiser notes: LUS Fiber plans faster rollout. Community networks are frequently attacked by incumbent groups and private providers for failing to immediately turn a profit after launching a network (something we have addressed here). LUS Fiber wisely started slow and will now start to ramp up the number of customers as they progress further along the learning curve of running the fiber-optic network.
As LUS Fiber passes the six-month mark, officials are planning to significantly increase the number of customers and areas that receive television, telephone and Internet service.
The system launched in some areas of the city in February, and thus far, the rollout has been somewhat slower than many anticipated. Lafayette Utilities System Director Terry Huval said the process hasn't gone faster because of a desire to focus on providing high-quality customer service.
"This is a new business," Huval said. "I intentionally held back because I wanted to make sure that every attempt we made to serve a customer was the best we could deliver. Now, we can start really accelerating."
A commentary worth reading: American broadband infrastructure: A national embarrassment
Several months ago, I visited the Netherlands and had the rare opportunity to be personally embarrassed by our terrible broadband infrastructure. The Dutch were literally making fun of me. The fact that our country, with its vast resources and its illustrious history -- Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs -- has such terrible internet service should be an outright national scandal.
If you live in Seattle and want to get involved in telecommunications issues, the city is looking for tech advisors. More details about the Citizens' Telecommunications and...
The Charleston Gazette published this opinion piece encouraging publicly owned broadband on July 5, 2009:
Just as railroads and highways were the essential infrastructure for development in the 19th and 20th centuries, broadband networks will be essential for 21st-century competitive economies. Small cities and even isolated, rural communities that have strong educational systems and human talent will be able to compete in the new global information economy. West Virginia's beautiful mountains and valleys, coupled with low density make most of the state an unattractive investment for private phone and cable companies. Fortunately, no community has to be left behind, each can seize the future with smart public investments. This should not come as a surprise. Local and state governments built our roads. Thousands of rural communities gained access to electricity through publicly owned networks. Thousands of communities today are forced to make a difficult choice when it comes to fast and affordable broadband networks. Our international peers have used smart policies to surpass our broadband networks while Washington has proved unable to keep up. But hundreds of communities across the United States have grown tired of waiting and publicly provide some level of broadband to encourage economic development or educational opportunities. There are some who argue, as Frank Rizzo recently did in these very pages, that publicly owned broadband systems never succeed. These myths have been encouraged by telecom-funded think tanks for more than a decade, despite having been proved false time and time again. Mr. Rizzo claimed, "commercial providers generally offer more reliable and faster service." But the fastest networks at the most affordable prices are publicly, not privately owned. In Lafayette, La., the public utility's network offers 10Mbps symmetrical connections for less than $30 a month. In Wilson, N.C., the publicly owned network offers a better triple-play package (phone, TV and Internet) at substantially lower prices than the private provider, Time Warner. Details and more comparisons are available from Municipal Networks and Community Broadband. Across the country, public networks have succeeded by every metric. They create local jobs by keeping support services local rather than off-shoring it. They keep prices down because they don't have to pay millions...