Every few years a large city takes a hard look at the broadband issue and considers building a citywide fiber network to make their city more competitive. A few years ago, San Francisco took a hard look at the issue. Before then, cities like Seattle, Baltimore, Cleveland, and others considered fiber networks.
The latest city that might be joining the fray is Denver where fiber proponents are pushing the City Council to have a 2020 ballot initiative for removing statewide restrictions on municipal participation in finding fiber solutions. Numerous smaller communities in Colorado have already held ballot initiatives that allowed their cities to opt-out of the restriction. Some of those cities have gone on to build fiber networks and others are now studying the issue.
If such a ballot initiative passed it would not necessarily mean that Denver would be considering building a fiber network. Instead, this would remove the restrictions created by a law sponsored by the big incumbent telephone and cable companies that requires a referendum before a city can even have a serious conversation about fiber.
A lot of people probably wonder why a large city would consider building a fiber network. It turns out that many cities have sizable pockets without adequate broadband. There are places in every big city where the cable companies never provided service – often to apartment buildings in poor neighborhoods. I’ve written several blogs about studies that show that AT&T redlined DSL deployment and that numerous poor neighborhoods still can only get DSL with speeds of 3 Mbps or less. I can’t remember any more who made the estimate, but I recall a paper published six or seven years ago that estimated that there were as many people in cities with no good broadband option as there are in rural America.
Even where cities have broadband, the big cities still have digital deserts where whole neighborhoods barely subscribe to broadband because of cost. The city of Buffalo, NY identified that the city has a huge homework gap and found that many students there didn’t have broadband. After some investigation, the city found that there were numerous neighborhoods where only 30 – 40% of residents could afford broadband. Buffalo has begun a program to provide free home WiFi for students, with the first deployment to cover 5,500 homes.
There have been several recent studies that have shown that affordability has become the number one reason why homes don’t have broadband. That issue is about to intensify as all of the big cable companies are starting to raise broadband rates annually. The big cable companies are also tamping down on special pricing that lets many homes get broadband for an affordable rate for a few years. Cities are recognizing that they have to find ways to solve the digital divide because they can see a huge difference between neighborhoods with and without broadband.
No NFL city has yet tackled building a fiber network to everybody, and perhaps none of them ever will. Building a fiber network of that magnitude is expensive and cities like San Francisco and Seattle got estimates of price tags over $1 billion to provide fiber everywhere. All big cities also already have some neighborhoods with fiber, making it harder to justify building fiber everywhere.
However, every big city has neighborhoods with poor broadband options and neighborhoods suffering from a huge homework gap and digital divide because of affordability. I expect more cities are going to tackle initiatives like the one undertaken in Buffalo to find ways to get broadband to those who can’t afford big-ISP prices.
Many cities are restricted from taking a serious look at broadband solutions because of statewide legal restrictions. The Colorado legislation that requires a referendum just to consider a broadband solution is typical of these laws. There are twenty-two states with some sort of restriction on municipal broadband which is intended to stop the cities in those states from looking for solutions.
The bottom line is that the only solutions for the digital divide and the homework gap are going to have to come locally. And that means that cities must be free to look for broadband solutions for neighborhoods that lack broadband options. There have been enough studies that demonstrate that students without home broadband underperform those with broadband in the home. I have no idea if the City Council in Denver is willing to at least tackle the ballot initiative to allow them to talk about the issue – but if they don’t, then their poorer neighborhoods are doomed to remain at a huge disadvantage to the rest the city.