Internet for All: Principles for Building Constituent-First Municipal Broadband Networks

Chattanooga, Tennessee

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COMMENTARY | The way to fight for equity in broadband access leads through municipally-owned networks that follow key principles, according to Neighborly’s Garrett Brinker.

This is the second in two contributed articles on broadband access and local government’s role in building better connectivity for its citizens. Read the first one here

SAN FRANCISCO — The future of the internet is in jeopardy.

Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission announced its decision to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules, which sought to ensure that all internet traffic was treated equally. In doing so, the agency opened the floodgates for Internet service providers to block content and throttle speeds for particular sites, while offering preferential functionality for their own products. Ultimately, this enables giant telecommunications companies to increase their already-generous profit margins, while consumers suffer.

The controversial decision to roll back net neutrality inspired action nationwide: more than a dozen state legislators have now introduced bills that would protect their constituents’ ability to communicate freely online, while numerous states have responded by suing the federal government. Meanwhile, concerned citizens 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.”

Net neutrality’s intentions were certainly commendable but unfortunately, conversations surrounding this now-defunct rule often fail to recognize one of its primary shortcomings. Unfortunately, net neutrality was never a panacea, and was ill-equipped to address one of the most prevalent issues relating to internet in the U.S.: equal access. Despite the pivotal role that the internet plays in most Americans’ lives, and its reputation as a great democratizer, the aforementioned rules were unable to ensure that its delivery was as widespread and reliable as electricity and water.

The problem is simple: a lack of open markets. Proponents of net neutrality repeal often claim that deregulation stimulates infrastructure investment and innovation, but we’ve seen little evidence of that so far. In reality, it stands to galvanize the existing stronghold that cable giants wield over the internet—and it doesn’t look as though that status quo is working too well for the American consumer.

While corporate profits soar, troubling statistics indicate that 10 percent of American households have no access to high-speed broadband (defined as 25 Mbps). Meanwhile, 51 percent have just one choice of provider. Those who do have access to internet pay considerably more than their foreign counterparts – research suggests that the U.S. lags behind several other nations when it comes to speed and affordability. In fact, residents of many major American cities stand to pay double the amount that internet users in London, Seoul, Bucharest, and Paris would shell out for similar, 25 Mbps service.

These are admittedly disheartening numbers, but it’s not all bad news: there are trailblazing cities and communities across the country banding together to solve this critical issue and build their own internet infrastructures. San Francisco and New York are among the largest, but communities large and small are taking action. To name a few:

  • 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 has 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 operated broadband “Fiber to the Home” service.
  • In 2013, almost two-thirds of voters in Longmont, Colorado approved $45 million in bonds to deploy city-wide broadband, improving Internet speeds and lowering prices.
  • Just a few months ago, voters in Fort Collins, Colorado approved a proposal to issue up to $150 million in bonds to build out a broadband network that is city-owned and operated.

Internet access is a movement that’s gaining increased support and, as it advances, so emerges the idea that cities are, quite possibly, the only entities capable of providing truly egalitarian access to the Internet. How? By building municipal broadband networks and, in the process, rendering almost irrelevant the questions of anti-competitive, anti-consumer controls by oligopolistic players.

As the concept of municipal broadband gains momentum, the next question is: “How can the model be replicated effectively, and at scale?” Many models are starting to emerge—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 that there are so many models for internet access—and so many providers who have a vested interest in advancing one model over another—it’s important to have some grounding principles to evaluate the merits of each, and subsequently assess whether they represent a true fit for a community.

For municipal broadband to become ubiquitous, reliable and affordable to the extent that delivery of water or electricity to our homes is, 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—and that’s precisely why we’ve compiled “Neighborly’s Principles for Building Municipal Broadband Networks.” As we plan for the future of internet access, these six considerations are intended to serve as a stimulus 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 expand access to 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 the mere provision of faster internet. This means that the network should not dictate or limit services offered to the users – in this case, residents. Access should be provided equally to all corners of the community, and not merely represent the best interests of the service provider.

Broadband infrastructure should be locally owned and controlled, and separated from service provision.

Broadband infrastructure is, like water pipes and the electrical grid, a natural monopoly and should be organized as a utility. However, Neighborly believes that infrastructure and services should be separated to enable choice and competition among service providers, empowering individuals to select the service that best meets their needs. The price of infrastructure should be cost-driven, and no single ISP should be given preferential access.

Services should not be included as part of the utility, and should be open to competition.

With a separate service layer, there exists tremendous potential for a competitive marketplace to 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 elevate 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—upon which internet access has traditionally relied —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 – ultimately lowering the costs 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 core elements of a functional infrastructure network—maintained roads, clean water, reliable power, and a functioning sewer system—all contribute to the value of their property. Similarly, investment in faster, more 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, cities can track access and quality of service provided to all constituents in a community. This enables cities to evaluate in real time whether the entire community is being served equally. Communities should encourage service providers to use models that maximize access, and disseminate transparent data pertaining to access so that the whole community can identify areas for improvement, and work together to solve them.

The open internet represents a powerful equalizing force, one without which it is increasingly hard to conduct business, communicate effectively, or reach for new opportunities. Even the United Nations now deems it a fundamental human right and, as a leading world economy, the United States should be leading its democratization by fostering the expansion of a robust infrastructure that encourages true competition and collaboration to stimulate economic growth. The internet is fundamental to the new American Dream, and we should be delivering on this promise by ensuring affordable access to the consumers that stand to realize its limitless benefits.

Garrett Brinker is a Product Manager for San Francisco-based Neighborly. He originally wrote about these principles for Neighborly’s blog in January.

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