If you aren’t one of the fortunate people or businesses in a city with access to the gigabit Internet, you’re probably wondering what the holdup is. It could be that your state forbids it. And laws that restrict cities from running their own high-speed networks are inciting a really interesting—and heated—public policy discussion within cities, states and the federal government: Just what is the proper role of government in municipal broadband networks?
Internet providers such as AT&T and CenturyLink are rolling out access to gigabit networks, primarily to larger cities. But a number of smaller cities, such as Chattanooga and Tullahoma in Tennessee, developed their own broadband networks. And the efforts have been worthwhile—high-speed networks have spawned economic development, according to a 2007 study by the Brookings Institute. For every 1 percent increase in the availability of broadband in a state, the number of jobs increases by up to 0.3 percent per year, according to the study. But it can be more. For example, in Tullahoma, job growth is double the statewide rate.
Given the potential for economic growth, a number of smaller cities are looking at Tullahoma’s example and asking whether they should do the same. More than 130 cities and regions, ranging from Norwood, Mass., to Clallam County, Wa., offer fiber or cable Internet connections to their communities, reports the Center for Public Integrity, which recently performed a study on the subject. Many cities already have “unused fiber” in the fiber-optic networks they use for utilities, so it wouldn’t be difficult to also provide high-speed Internet access.
But city-run broadband isn’t always an option because, in about 20 states, state laws prevent it. The concern was that public money would be used to compete with private businesses and that the cities weren’t capable of building or running the networks properly. The problem is, if providers like AT&T aren’t willing to provide broadband, these communities go without access.
For example, while Google considered bringing Google Fiber to Boulder, Colo., it chose nine other cities instead. Some people—including Boulder city leaders—believe the city was left out partly because Colorado has one of the aforementioned state laws making it difficult for cities to partner with a private provider such as Google. To run its own high-speed Internet networks, the law requires a vote of the people first. For example, the city of Longmont, Colo., is working on setting up its own high-speed network and had to go to the voters twice to get it approved, in 2009 and in 2011, because of the arduous restrictions of Colorado’s municipal Internet law. (Boulder is now planning a similar initiative, so it can create its own high-speed network.)
Now, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering overturning those laws. The commission claims it was granted this right in a ruling by the Court of Appeals, which addressed net neutrality. The FCC doesn’t have the right to require net neutrality, the court ruled, but it does have the right to control whether cities can set up their own broadband Internet systems. Chattanooga is one of the cities requesting the FCC action.
Now Congress is now stepping in. House Communications Subcommittee member Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) added an amendment to the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act that would block funding for this effort. In addition to Congress, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) is fighting the FCC proposal, saying the federal government shouldn’t interfere with the powers of the states. Municipal Internet supporters point out that with such bans, the states are themselves interfering with the powers of the cities.
Ultimately, the decision will rest on whether high-speed Internet is considered a service anyone could sell or a utility, like gas or electricity—which cities often provide to their residents. And the decision of the FCC, as well as that of Congress and the President, could help determine the future of high-speed Internet outside major cities for years to come.
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