Municipal Broadband

One of the fights that I expect to see resurface this year is on the topic of whether local governments should be allowed to build fiber networks and become ISPs. The last FCC tackled this issue in a small way when they granted petitions by Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC to expand their broadband networks beyond their electric service territories and municipal boundaries. That ruling got reversed by a US district court and was not appealed by the FCC. But the ruling was of limited scope anyway and only addressed those two cities and didn’t set any precedent for other communities.

There are a lot of moving parts on this topic and it’s hard to know where this might go with the current FCC. This FCC is obviously pro-big ISP and companies like Comcast and AT&T have been staunch opponents of municipal broadband. But by the same token, this administration seems to lean towards states’ rights – and up until now municipal broadband has been regulated on a state-by-state basis.

Interestingly, at the local level municipal broadband has broad bipartisan support. In most communities almost all local politicians of both major parties support local broadband efforts. In my experience in working around the country, the only local political opponents of municipal broadband I have seen are those who are strong opponents of government spending money for anything but essential services. Generally local, state and even federal politicians support local broadband efforts in the communities they serve. I think the broad bipartisan appeal is due to politicians recognizing the strong public support for broadband and that almost every household wants broadband these days.

But there are 22 states with some restrictions on municipal broadband. These range from hurdles that can be overcome, like a referendum, up through states that have a total prohibition on municipal broadband. There has been a continual effort by ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) – funded by large corporations – to pass new state restrictions on broadband. But most recent efforts to increase prohibition of local broadband have been rebuffed, because few politicians want to go on the record against broadband. But I would not be surprised to see the big ISPs try to press their current advantage at the FCC and try to pass new national restrictions.

Today I see the municipal world dividing into two separate constituencies – urban and rural. Very few big cities have any desire to become an ISP. But they have legitimate concerns that urban broadband isn’t benefiting everybody. For example, San Francisco and some other cities are unhappy that apartment residents don’t have the same broadband opportunities and options as single family homes. And a lot of cities are still unhappy that after all of these years there is no solution for the digital divide. The FCC said last year that there are still around six million people in pockets of urban areas that don’t have access to broadband that meets the 25 Mbps download standard. But while these issues are viewed as a major problem in urban areas, I don’t see much appetite for big city governments tackling the cost of building broadband networks, which is particularly expensive in cities.

Rural America is a totally different story. We have come to the point where communities without good broadband really suffer. Broadband is not just about Netflix but is necessary to take part in the modern world. Local governments are finding that nobody wants to buy homes without broadband if there is a nearby community with broadband. Worse, communities are seeing businesses move away or bypass them when considering new locations. Lack of broadband puts school kids at a definite disadvantage and there are still a lot of households that drive kids daily to public hotspots just to do homework. And lack of broadband takes away all the opportunities for working at home – probably the biggest area of job growth in rural America.

I see small communities – even down to really small sizes like townships with 700 residents – trying to find ways to build a broadband network. I’ve read a few hundred RFPs from rural communities over the last few years, and probably not more than 5% want to become an ISP. But they will do so if they can’t find a commercial company willing to do it. Rural communities largely favor of public-private partnerships. More and more of them are willing to kick money into a building a network if an ISP will invest in their community and operate a broadband network.

I believe that within a decade we are going to start seeing broadband ‘deserts’ where communities without broadband start withering – just as happened in the past to communities that didn’t get electricity, or that were bypassed by railroads or interstate highways. It’s hard to think that a community today can keep their kids at home without broadband – and this is starting to scare local governments.

I just hope that the FCC doesn’t wade into this battle on the side of the big ISPs. Those big companies are not spending money in rural America – or if they are, it’s only when handed to them by the federal government. And even then they are just putting band-aids on rural broadband rather than building fast new networks. I have a feeling that many of the states that have restrictions on rural broadband are going to start having second thoughts about those restrictions when they realize that broadband is at or near the top of concerns of most of rural America.

There are companies building great rural broadband networks. The small telcos are almost all expanding their service areas to build broadband networks. And many of them are working with or partnering with local governments. But all of these small companies collectively can only solve a relatively small percentage of the rural broadband gap – together they do not have the capacity to borrow anything close to the billions needed to build broadband everywhere. Many rural electric cooperatives are now looking hard at the issue, and they could satisfy another slice of the rural market. But that’s still going to leave millions of rural residents with no broadband on their horizon. And I predict these folks are going to become a vocal constituency that politicians will be unable to ignore.

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