If you are looking for fast and affordable broadband Internet service, go to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Or Lafayette, Louisiana.
Or Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Residents and businesses in these and a handful of other cities enjoy Internet speeds that are nearly 100 times faster than the national average. And the cost of getting online is substantially lower than in much of the rest of the country.
Because these communities didn’t simply rely on big cable and telephone companies to develop broadband networks. Citizens and their elected representative acted to assure that high-speed, high-quality and affordable Internet service would be broadly available. They did so by investing in infrastructure, developing partnerships with national and international innovators and encouraging genuine competition—as opposed to corporate monopoly.
The digital divide still exists in much of America. Indeed, the United States has fallen behind other countries when it comes to building out the sort of twenty-first-century communications infrastructure that is vital not just to commerce but to democracy itself.
But there are American communities that have taken charge of their digital destiny—many of the small, some of them rural— and they have put themselves on the global cutting edge by developing their own responses to the demand for high-speed, high-quality broadband Internet. In many cases, they have developed municipal broadband utilities—in what The Washington Post refers to as “efforts by cities to build their own alternatives to major Internet providers such as Comcast, Verizon or AT&T—a public option for Internet access, you could say.”
In Chattanooga, for instance, the Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB), a municipally owned utility, stepped up in 2007 with a ten-year plan to develop a fiber network that will serve all citizens and businesses on the diverse Tennessee city. In 2010, the EPB began developing the first one-gigabit-per-second (Gbps) service in the United States. That municipal investment has proven to be massively successful not just for citizens and consumers but for the city’s economy.
“EPB’s investments are reshaping Chattanooga’s economic landscape,” according to a new report released Tuesday by the by the National Economic Council and Council of Economic Advisers. “The gigabit broadband service has helped the City attract a new community of computer engineers, tech entrepreneurs and investors. For example, local entrepreneurs have organized Lamp Post, a venture incubator that provides capital and mentorship to startups. Lamp Post now has over 150 employees in a 31,000 square foot office space in downtown Chattanooga. CO.LAB, a local nonprofit organization, provides shared working space, access to investor networks and hosts the annual summer GITANK program, a 14-week business accelerator. The investment community has responded in kind. Since 2009, Chattanooga has gone from close to zero venture capital to at least five organized funds with investable capital of over $50 million.”
Other communities have done the same.
Everyone’s happy, except the telecommunications conglomerates that have failed to invest in infrastructure and embrace innovation. Frightened by the prospect of real competition, they have sought to lock in monopolies—and slow, costly Internet service—by lobbying states to limit the ability of local officials and municipal utilities to provide state-of-the-art service. Nudged along by corporate lobbyists, legislatures in nineteen states have bent to pressure from the telecommunications monopolies and enacted laws that limit options for local innovation and investment, as well as honest competition. “The industry’s monopoly minded efforts to regulate away competition are part of a long history of abusive policies that have left too many Americans stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide,” explains Craig Aaron, president of the media reform group Free Press.
Cities across the country are pushing back against the special interests. Chattanooga and another city that has been in the forefront of municipal innovation—Wilson, North Carolina—have asked the Federal Communications Commission to prevent states from enacting laws that serve big cable interests but that harm consumers and communities. Prodded by tech-savvy mayors such as Madison, Wisconsin’s Paul Soglin and Tucson, Arizona’s Jonathan Rothschild, the US Conference of Mayors has weighed in with a resolution focusing on Internet access issues. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says that “Universal and affordable broadband access, and the free flow of information, is one critical area where we as mayors must focus in an effort to promote equality and close the opportunity gap.”
Responding to the calls, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler recently recognized that “If the people, acting through their elected local governments, want to pursue competitive community broadband, they shouldn’t be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don’t want that competition.” A vote on the petitions from Chattanooga and Wilson is expected in late February.
Wheeler is now getting top-level encouragement to support the municipal broadband and local innovation.
Following up on his November statement urging the FCC to safeguard Net Neutrality—which seems to have moved Wheeler toward clearer acceptance of the need to prevent the development of Internet fast lanes (for content from corporations and political elites that can pay to speed things up) and slow lanes (for content from grassroots activists and small businesses that cannot pay)—President Obama on Wednesday announced that his administration would launch a multi-front effort to promote Internet investment, innovation and competition in municipalities across the United States.
“In too many places across America, some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors,” declared Obama, who addressed the issue in Cedar Falls, Iowa—a city of 40,000 where Cedar Falls Utilities has developed Internet service as fast as global leaders such as Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris. “Today, I’m saying we’re going to change that. Enough’s enough.”
Obama, who plans to raise the issue in his January 20 State of the Union Address, explains, “The good news is that there’s some steps we can take, through executive actions, that allow us to make sure that every community…will be able to make the investments they need to speed up broadband, bring in more competition, give consumers more choice.” Obama traveled to Cedar Falls, Iowa—a city of 40,000 where Cedar Falls Utilities has developed Internet service as fast as global leaders such as Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris—to outline an agenda that will be included in his January 20 State of the Union Address.
The White House says those steps will include:
* Calling to End Laws that Harm Broadband Service Competition: Laws in 19 states—some specifically written by special interests trying to stifle new competitors—have held back broadband access and, with it, economic opportunity. Today, President Obama is announcing a new effort to support local choice in broadband, formally opposing measures that limit the range of options available to communities to spur expanded local broadband infrastructure, including ownership of networks. As a first step, the Administration is filing a letter with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging it to join this effort by addressing barriers inhibiting local communities from responding to the broadband needs of their citizens.
* Expanding the National Movement of Local Leaders for Better Broadband: As of today, 50 cities representing over 20 million Americans have joined the Next Century Cities coalition, a nonpartisan network pledging to bring fast, community-supported broadband to their towns and cities. They join 37 research universities around the country that formed the Gig.U partnership to bring fast broadband to communities around their campuses. To recognize these remarkable individuals and the partnerships they have built, in June 2015 the White House will host a Community Broadband Summit of mayors and county commissioners from around the nation who are joining this movement for broadband solutions and economic revitalization. These efforts will also build on the US Ignite partnership, launched by White House in 2012, and which has grown to include more than 65 research universities and 35 cities in developing new next-generation gigabit applications.
* Announcing a New Initiative to Support Community Broadband Projects: To advance this important work, the Department of Commerce is launching a new initiative, BroadbandUSA, to promote broadband deployment and adoption. Building on expertise gained from overseeing the $4.7 billion Broadband Technology Opportunities Program funded through the Recovery Act, BroadbandUSA will offer online and in-person technical assistance to communities; host a series of regional workshops around the country; and publish guides and tools that provide communities with proven solutions to address problems in broadband infrastructure planning, financing, construction, and operations across many types of business models.
* Unveiling New Grant and Loan Opportunities for Rural Providers: The Department of Agriculture is accepting applications to its Community Connect broadband grant program and will reopen a revamped broadband loan program, which offers financing to eligible rural carriers that invest in bringing high-speed broadband to unserved and under served rural areas.
* Removing Regulatory Barriers and Improving Investment Incentives: The President is calling for the Federal Government to remove all unnecessary regulatory and policy barriers to broadband build-out and competition, and is establishing a new Broadband Opportunity Council of over a dozen government agencies with the singular goal of speeding up broadband deployment and promoting adoption for our citizens. The Council will also solicit public comment on unnecessary regulatory barriers and opportunities to promote greater coordination with the aim of addressing those within its scope.
For municipal leaders who have been fighting for the flexibility to invest and innovate, what the president has done is a huge deal. Now, however, the FCC must act. “The President’s announcement [and the release] of a White House report detailing what municipalities have been able to accomplish utilizing broadband are very welcome,” explained Madison’s Paul Soglin, who has for years objected to a Wisconsin law that limits options for municipal investment and innovation. “I recognize, however, as does the President, that the real legal action will come at the Federal Communications Commission, which has scheduled a vote on robust regulation of net neutrality next month. The FCC also has the legal authority to simultaneously pre-empt state laws that create barriers to municipal broadband, and I join President Obama is urging the Commission to do so.”
It’s not just mayors and net neutrality activists who should be engaged with this issue, however. Americans who understand the vital importance of expanding access to fast and affordable broadband Internet—not just for local and regional development but, in this digital age, for the maintenance of meaningful communications and robust debate—need to recognize that this debate is about more than Internet infrastructure. What the president is talking about is developing and maintaining the democratic infrastructure of the United States in the twenty-first century.