How Small Communities Are Creating High-Speed, Affordable Broadband Access

What's to come?
Aug. 1 2012 8:04 AM

Want To Pay Less and Get More?

How communities are banding together to create high-speed, affordable broadband access.

Woman sitting at laptop.
The broadband gap between the most connected and least connected U.S. communities is getting worse.

Photo by John Howard/Photodisc.

Imagine paying $40 per gallon of gasoline when people in neighboring towns are paying $4. Or paying $8 per kilowatt-hour for electricity when others were paying 8 cents. Unthinkable! But this stark disparity is commonplace when it comes to paying for Internet access in the United States. As the recent report “The Cost of Connectivity” from the New America Foundation (a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense) documents, something is fundamentally wrong with our broadband.

Businesses and households without fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet are tremendously disadvantaged in the modern economy. And the gap between the most connected and least connected communities is actually getting worse. Some homeowners in North Carolina are reluctant to publicly discuss their total lack of broadband access due to fears of being unable to later sell their property.

When one looks at how the United States is doing internationally, it's clear that our broadband policies over the past decade have been an abject failure. In a single generation, the United States has gone from No. 1 in the world across a range of broadband metrics to middling—a staggeringly fast fall. Today, we pay far more for far slower speeds in far fewer places than a growing list of other countries.

And this fact undermines our long-term global competitiveness. We cannot have a robust 21st-century economy without affordable, ubiquitous broadband, as many peer nations—like France, Latvia, Japan, and Romania—have long understood. It sometimes feels like our economy is the only issue in political debates, so when are the candidates going to move beyond empty rhetoric and propose concrete plans to create universal, affordable access to real broadband connectivity?

The solution from President Obama’s Federal Communications Commission has been to give more subsidies to the same big companies that have largely failed to invest in the networks we need. The real kicker? These federal subsidies will often be used to extend already obsolete DSL lines rather than invest in next-generation connections.

In the meantime, local communities are taking matters into their own hands and have created remarkable citywide fiber-to-the-home broadband networks. Many offer services directly to residents, providing a much-needed alternative to the cable and telephone companies. And by creating meaningful consumer choice among competitors, these networks are driving lower prices—spurring new investment and creating new jobs—and keeping more money circulating in the local economy.

Approaches vary from neighborhood wireless networks to the ubiquitous fiber-optic connections in Chattanooga, Tenn., the “gig city,” which has built the nation’s biggest municipally owned fiber-optic network.* North Dakota now has one of the largest next-generation networks in the world, wiring more than 10,000 square miles of some of the most rural areas of the United States with connectivity that is superior to what's available to the millions of people living in major nearby cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Rural fiber-optic networks are often built by local co-ops, not big corporations, which have all but abandoned isolated communities. AT&T’s CEO was open on a call to investors in January when he stated, “We’ve all been trying to find a broadband solution that was economically viable to get out to rural America, and we’re not finding one, to be quite candid.” Verizon wants to go further, pulling copper wires off the poles in many rural areas so they can force households onto more expensive (and less regulated) cellular data plans.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance recently released case studies of three of the most advanced networks in the nation: Chattanooga; Lafayette, La.; and Bristol, Va. Chattanooga has gained fame for being the first community in the United States with universal access to a 1-gigabit connection—speeds that are 100 times faster than an ordinary cable connection and 500 times faster than typical DSL. Bristol’s network has helped create thousands of new jobs since launching in 2003 and has never raised prices for its telephone or broadband service packages even though available speeds have been doubled several times since its founding. The base package of 6 megabits per second downstream and 1 Mbps upstream (a speed comparable to most DSL connections) is $26.36 per month and a cable-comparable 12 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up or 16 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up runs $35.16 and $39.56 respectively, well below comparable tiers from national cable companies. In a few short years, Lafayette’s network has resulted in hundreds of new jobs, millions of dollars in aggregate savings for the community, and the economic boost that local college graduates will be able to take advantage of the digital economy without having to leave Cajun Country.

Local municipal networks are crucial, but they aren't the only way to fix the U.S. broadband problem. Hundreds of other communities get access through cooperatives and other nonprofit approaches.

Historically, rural electric cooperatives were essential in expanding electricity to farms and villages throughout the United States. The parallels between electrification and modern broadband policy are clear—right down to the arguments used by corporate incumbents when they seek to deny communities the right to build their own systems.

But unlike electrification, our present inside-the-Beltway policymakers have mostly ignored nonprofit approaches as a solution to expand affordable, reliable, and fast access to the Internet. And since community networks don't have lobbying arms working the corridors of power in Washington, key decision-makers have silently watched as cable and DSL lobbyists have created substantial new barriers to community networks in 19 states—limiting both competition and local authority and leading to worse, more expensive service than in a growing list of other countries that don't create these regulatory barriers.

Every day, connections to the Internet are more important for economic development, educational opportunities, and maintaining a high quality of life. Basic broadband simply does not cut it for many residents and businesses—especially those trying to create the jobs of tomorrow. The private sector will not, cannot, solve this problem alone. No community should be denied the authority to build its own network, if it so chooses.

Correction, Aug. 1, 2012: This article originally stated that Chattanooga, Tenn., plans to build the nation’s biggest municipally owned fiber-optic network. It has already built the network. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page.  You can also follow us on Twitter.

Christopher Mitchell is the director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis.

Sascha Meinrath is vice president of the New America Foundation and director of the Open Technology Institute.