The future of the Internet is under threat. States are suing the federal government over the stripping of Net Neutrality regulations, and people in cities across the country – from Philadelphia to Harrison, Arkansas – are taking to the streets to fight back. Some are even declaring the “end of the Internet as we know it.”
With the repeal of Net Neutrality, the FCC opened the floodgates for Internet service providers (ISPs) to block content and throttle speeds for particular sites, and ultimately, increase their already generous profit margins. At least six state legislators have now introduced bills that would protect their constituent’s ability to communicate freely online.
Meanwhile, upwards of 75 percent of American households have either no access or just one choice of provider for high-speed broadband (defined as 25 Mbps). Tom Wheeler, the former FCC chairman, explains: “And when there is no competition, who makes the rules? The rules are made by the monopolists.”
But Net Neutrality was never a panacea: It never could properly address issues like egalitarian access to the Internet, the type of access many of us take for granted, like reliable electricity and clean water.
The good news is that cities and communities across the country are banding together to build their own Internet infrastructure. San Francisco and New York are among the largest, but communities of every scale are taking action.
Chattanooga, Tennessee, “the city that was saved by the Internet,” invested approximately $390 million in smart grid and broadband initiatives. The city’s been wired with 1 gigabit-per-second fiber-optic Internet service for seven years, and they’ve seen more than $865 million in economic growth as a result.
Wilson, North Carolina became the first city in the state to build an independent, locally-owned and operate broadband Fiber to the Home service. In 2013, almost two-thirds of voters Longmont, Colorado approved $45 million in bonds to deploy city-wide broadband which has vastly improved Internet speeds and lowered prices.
Just a few months ago, voters in Fort Collins, CO approved a proposal to issue up to $150 million in bonds to build out a broadband network that is city-owned and operated. This is a movement that’s building in our country’s largest cities and in its farthest corners.
Cities are, quite possibly, the only entity that can provide constituents across this country with truly egalitarian access to the Internet through building municipal broadband networks – and render almost irrelevant the questions of anti-competitive, anti-consumer controls by oligopolistic players.
As municipal broadband as a concept starts to gain momentum, the next question is how. Many models are starting to arise – from public-private partnerships to a full retail service model to open access networks, where the City owns the network but generally allows a marketplace of providers to offer their services.
Make no mistake, the model that a community chooses is a critical decision that could radically affect the outcomes for constituents.
But given there are so many models and many providers who have a specific interest in advancing one model over another, it’s important to have some grounding principles to evaluate the merits of these models and whether they’re a fit for a community.
For municipal broadband to become as ubiquitous, reliable and affordable as the delivery of water or electricity to our homes, we must build these networks from the ground up, with every last constituent in mind. This requires an established set of principles that guides the ownership, construction, and operation of truly egalitarian municipal broadband networks.
Today we’re sharing “Neighborly’s Principles for Building Municipal Broadband Networks” – a set of six simple ideas which we can leverage as we plan the future of Internet access.
At Neighborly, we don’t regard ourselves as the experts on every aspect of municipal broadband. We hope these principles serve as a foundation for fruitful, constructive and energizing conversations with communities across the country.
Access to the Internet must be universal and equal by design.
The Internet, as it exists today, provides unprecedented opportunities to access information and improve communication. But communities must unite behind fixing what is broken – access. A municipal broadband strategy must be bigger and more ambitious than just providing faster Internet. This means that the network should not dictate or limit services offered to the users, in this case residents, which shifts control from the service providers to the users. And access to this network should be provided equally to all corners of the community.
Broadband infrastructure should be locally owned and controlled, and separated from service provision.
Broadband infrastructure, like water pipes and the electrical grid, is a natural monopoly and should be organized as a utility. However, infrastructure and services should be separated so that choice and competition among service providers is possible and individuals can choose the service that best meets their needs. No ISP should be given preferential access to infrastructure. The price of infrastructure should be cost-driven.
Services should not be part of the utility and should be open to competition.
With a separate service layer, a competitive marketplace can thrive on top of publicly-owned infrastructure. The private sector can openly and easily deliver services with lower barriers to entry and across geographic boundaries. Communities can choose to operate their own ISPs alongside private sector players, but all ISPs should compete on service quality to drive up standards and speeds. The price of services should be market driven, within the context of broader access goals.
Networks should be software defined rather than hardware defined, to maximize flexibility and future-proofing.
“Network virtualization” can replace some of the hardware that Internet access has traditionally relied on with software, enabling multiple providers to offer their services through the same hardware. Virtualization means consumers can choose specialized services from more than one provider at a time over the virtual network. This reduces costs for ISPs trying to break into a market and increases competition amongst providers, lowering prices for consumers.
Investment in broadband infrastructure adds value to property, just like other utilities.
Property owners stabilize the real estate market and preserve property value. They also understand that maintained roads, clean water, reliable power and a functioning sewer system all contribute to the value of their property. Similarly, investment in faster, reliable and cheaper Internet is an investment in the value of a property and property owners should also be an owner of the broadband infrastructure.
The success of a network in solving the Digital Divide can and should be measured.
With centrally organized infrastructure, we can track access and quality of service provided to all constituents in a community, and in real time evaluate whether the full range of people are being served equally. Communities should encourage service providers to use models that maximize access, and make data about access transparent so that the whole community can identify access problems and work together to solve them.
Communities across the country are banding together to build municipal networks. If you, your neighbors or your government are on a mission to do so, we want to hear from you. Learn more here.
If you're an issuer looking to collectively build municipal broadband with your community, reach out to our Public Finance team.