When it comes to high-speed Internet access, we exhibit classic symptoms of addiction. That is, we need increasing levels of the desired substance (i.e. bandwidth) to get the same buzz.
Most of us have a small number of suppliers in the form of local and regional ISPs. Urban areas occasionally support a dozen or more ISPs, but sparsely-populated rural areas might be lucky to have a single provider. Wherever you live, there's a chance that all the local ISPs might go out of business some day or refuse to provide you your bandwidth fix at a price you can afford. In other words, we're all junkies without a guaranteed future supply.
This gloomy prognosis raises several questions. As a society, have we passed the point of no return? Second, how much control do we have over the broadband infrastructure in our communities? Over the past decade, communities trying to take control of their broadband future have created an informal, loosely-aligned movement known as Municipal broadband which refers to any effort by local, county or regional governments to provide broadband for its citizens, for a fee or free-of-charge.
The simple act of convening local stakeholders to discuss municipal broadband has several potential benefits. First, if broadband doomsday (however you define it) touches down in your region, you'll have the outline of a plan and some allies to help you address the situation.
Interestingly, as this article in Ars Technica makes clear, the specter of municipal broadband can scare regional ISP's into improving service and lowering prices ahead of their preferred schedule. In 2007, residents of Monticello, Minnesota approved a referendum authorizing the creation of municipal broadband network that would bring high-speed fiber optic connections to every home and business in the city. The local ISP, TDS, first responded by attempting to block the plan through legal means. When the courts ruled against them, TDS then responded by upgrading the town's network, doubling the average connection speed without raising prices. Lafayette, Louisiana saw a similar drop in prices following the creation of a municipal broadband network.
Regardless of whether it's ultimately provided by a private or public entity, affordable broadband is affordable broadband; it spurs economic investment by businesses and individuals. My colleague Elliot Harmon asked, “are ISPs the missing link in sustainable broadband adoption?” in a post of that same name. In talking to Jason Schroeder of ACCEL, Elliot found that when nonprofits and government agencies try to provide affordable broadband options to low-income clients without emptying their own coffers, they often run up against resistance from local ISPs. Again, municipal broadband might be the lever that motivates ISPs to cooperate in the development of the sustainable wireless mesh broadband networks of the type that Jason discusses. If your organization is receiving BTOP funding as part of the effort to improve America's broadband infrastructure, creativity and tough negotiating tactics might be needed to have the long-term impact you've been hoping for.
Municipal Broadband's Risks and Obstacles
Building a municipal broadband network has its own risks and obstacles. Which government agencies and legal procedures have the power to authorize municipal broadband? Once you identify the locus of power, what combination of tech-speak and legalese do you need to optimize the program itself and minimize the chances of a successful legal challenge? Monticello isn't the only instance of an ISP responding antagonistically to municipal broadband endeavor. Some ISPs have turned to courts. Others have resorted to state legislatures, lobbying in favor of laws that make it harder to launch municipal broadband. Since building its own fiber-to-the-premises (FTTX) network, Wilson, N.C. has fought off a series of these bills in the North Carolina legislature, as detailed in Mighty, mighty broadband and the Save NC Broadband blog.
Once a municipal broadband effort develops a plan for surmounting legal, political and administrative obstacles, serious technical questions remain. These questions should also be addressed early and often since they impact all facets of a municipal broadband implementation. Will this network be wired or wireless? Wireless was the flavor of the month in the early and middle years of the last decade, so many municipal wireless projects launched successfully. This legacy means that there are numerous private firms and city administrators have experience with municipal wireless networks that they can share with newer projects. On the other hand, fiber-optic networks are usually higher speed and capacity which makes them more future proof. Also, network topology is an important planning decision. Mesh or hub-and-spoke are two commonly used topologies for municipal broadband networks, and they both have their pros and cons.
Starting a conversation about municipal broadband in your region can put much-needed pressure on ISPs that enjoy a near-monopoly over broadband services. On the other hand, if those ISPs call your bluff, does your community have the resources and the political will needed to follow through on the threat?
If I lived in an area with insufficient or overpriced broadband, I would start the ball rolling by having some informal conversations with nonprofits, libraries, government agencies and activists in my own area and elsewhere. Are ISPs in the area in the midst of low-profile efforts to upgrade their networks? Wiill these upgrades provide the bandwidth we're craving? Is there someone better qualified than I am to coordinate a conversation about municipal broadband? As with any effort at local reform, success depends largely on the right mix of energy, money and connections.