Thursday, May 29, 2014

A casual survey of the current state of municipal broadband

The debate over high speed internet has morphed into a race to the top with many cities across the country finding ways to build their own networks, now known as municipal broadband, or muniband for short. In many cities that have found their access to the internet squelched by the political muscle of duopolies between telco and cable, muniband is the answer.

Muniband also addresses the problem of net neutrality in a very big way. No longer is priority determined by a Wall Street bean counter or CEO. Rather, priority is determined by the local muniband access provider. As a public utility, muniband operators care not where the bits come from, but rather, how to make sure there is enough capacity for all.

We know that capacity is the issue because the lack of enthusiasm by the incumbents to upgrade their equipment to keep up with demand has been well documented. This, despite better technology coming along every year. The behavior of the incumbents has resembled something more like selfish monopolist than a benevolent service provider.

As people become more and more aware of the impact of internet access (or lack of it) on their lives, more and more data is becoming available to quantify it. Communities across the nation are no longer satisfied with watching somebody else get better, faster service while businesses leave for that better, faster service, with the jobs.

Witness the happenings in Princeton Massachusetts: 91% of the voters approved a measure for municipal broadband. Why? Very poor service provided by incumbents Charter and Comcast, and both are simply not interested in working with the town. There is simply not enough revenue to justify the costs of network upgrades for the incumbents. You know, those Wall Street bean counters were right, weren't they?

Around Princeton, entrepreneurs are relocating to nearby towns for better access. Real estate professionals groan about falling property values and the difficulty of selling in Princeton due to subpar internet access. The townspeople have a genuine sense of urgency about it and have now taken matters into their own hands since the incumbents don't seem to care.

But things are not all that bad. Seems that not so long ago, Democrats and Republicans got very interested in freeing up municipal access to the internet in Tennessee. There is a bipartisan effort to undo the damage done to municipal broadband efforts of years past. What had happened is that in the past, cable companies wanted to carry on with their indifferent attitudes to the consumer. So they lobbied the state legislature to put a clamp on muniband competition. Now that the natural experiment of gigabit access in Chattanooga has proven to be a wild success, both Dems and Reps are working on 4 different pieces of legislation to clear the field for cities that want to set up their own networks.

In Centerville, Utah, they are already running comparisons of costs between the proposed Macquarie partnership with Utopia against the local incumbents. The picture is not pretty for the incumbents who have become fat and happy with their monopoly/duopoly.

The Utah state legislature is even starting to turn after watching what has happened after passing model legislation from ALEC designed to prohibit municipal broadband. For those of you who don't know, ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council - a nice neutral name for a corporate mouthpiece, isn't it? Well, the incumbent carriers got together with ALEC to do as much damage as possible to the muniband movement and they were largely successful. Utah was the first to pass that legislation and incumbents here rubbed their hands together with glee upon passage.

First, the incumbents wanted to squelch any more "unfair competition" in jurisdictions like Spanish Fork. In Spanish Fork, they built their own network since they just could not get the service they wanted from the incumbents, and now offer very reasonable rates for internet and TV access. The same legislation was also intended to squash Utopia, a consortium of 11 cities that wanted to pool their resources to build a better network.

But even that effort is starting to turn around now that many people around the state are starting to complain, loudly. A recent attempt to further limit municipal broadband in the state was rejected to allow the market to decide if they want to go with disinterested incumbents or let the cities build their own networks.

Nobody likes the smell of a private monopoly.
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