Most people in the country buy broadband from a handful of giant ISPs – The four largest ISPs serve more than three-fourths of all broadband customers in the country. But some people are lucky enough to benefit from great local ISPs in the same way that I benefit from being near to local vegetable farms.
There is a wide variety of local ISPs that includes independent telephone companies, telephone cooperatives, municipal ISPs, electric cooperatives, independent fiber overbuilders, and WISPs. Not all local ISPs are great – but from the stories I hear around the country, most people served by local ISPs feel lucky to have the local option.
There was a time 75 years ago when the federal government acknowledged that local is better. When it became clear that the big commercial electric companies were never going to build and serve in rural America, somebody in the federal government came up with the brilliant idea of letting communities build and operate their own electric companies through cooperatives. This didn’t cost the government much since the federal electrification plan provided long-term loans through the Rural Utility Service, and the cooperatives repaid the government for funding rural electric networks.
We’re in the process of handing out billion in federal grants to build rural broadband networks, and there isn’t one shred of localism in the new federal programs. Instead, the government is handing out huge grants that are often lucrative enough to instead attract the biggest ISPs and speculative investors to build rural broadband.
Does anybody really think that AT&T or Charter really wants to provide broadband in rural America? AT&T spent the last forty years milking the last vestiges of profits out of rural networks while making zero investments. Charter and other big ISPs are not going to like the much higher operating costs in rural areas that come from long truck rolls and increased maintenance costs to keep up with huge miles of rural miles.
The big federal grants are providing an incentive for big ISPs or speculative investors to build fiber networks because the grants make it possible to earn high returns. It’s impossible to believe that a big ISP like AT&T is going to provide the same level of customer service, repairs, and network maintenance as would be done by a local ISP. I don’t need a crystal ball to know that there will be a huge difference in twenty years between a fiber network built today by a giant ISP and one built by a rural cooperative. Without future grants, AT&T won’t invest in future electronics upgrades, and the company won’t do the routine maintenance needed to keep the network in good working order. Cooperative fiber networks will be humming along like brand new while the big ISP networks will already be showing signs of age.
The electrification program didn’t include grants, and the newly formed cooperatives eventually repaid the federal government for lending it the money to build power grids. I can’t imagine that the federal government has ever made a better investment or gotten a better return than it did from the electrification loans – the only things that come even close are Interstate highways and the G.I. Bill that sent millions to college after WW II.
In a real slap-down against localism, current federal broadband grant programs are actually stacked against small local ISPs. Federal grants expect a grant recipient to prove upfront that it has the matching funds to pay for the portion of the project not funded from a grant. Small ISPs typically don’t have the kind of balance sheets that traditional banks are looking for, and I know small ISPs that are unable to get grants due to the inability to raise the matching funds. And forget about starting a new cooperative – the grants and banks are not interested in helping start-ups.
It’s a shame that we forgot about the most successful program imaginable for building rural networks. Forty years from now, we are going to see that many of the areas where big ISPs get grant money today will have gone to hell and will need federal funding relief again. But rural markets operated by good local ISPs will be humming nicely along in forty or a hundred years from now. Broadband is one of the areas where local really is better. We all know this, but little guys don’t get a say in writing grant rules.