I haven’t written a post in a while, but reading an interesting article in Atlantic Cities today, Why Are There No Big Cities with Municipal Broadband Networks?, I was reminded of some past posts and wanted to take the opportunity to bring some thoughts together.
The largest city in the United States with its own municipal broadband network is Chattanooga, TN. (Another cool thing that put Chattanooga in the news was its 2012 typeface branding efforts). About 170,000 residents in that city have access to the city’s publicly owned cable networks for their internet needs.
There are 137 cities in the US with more population than Chattanooga, begging the question: why isn’t the internet treated more like electricity, gas, and water in more of America’s cities.
The first reason the Atlantic Cities article puts forward is the pressure that telecom giants AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, etc. are able to put on cities. Several states (like Colorado and Texas) have laws on the books that prohibit local governments from building their own networks, laws that are initiated and sustained by the telecom lobby. Chicago, for example, has been in the news for years as talk of establishing a network in that city is discussed (but always seems to fizzle out without gaining any traction). The latest is that Chicago is seeking a public-private partnership with Gigabit Squared which would circumvent some of the traditional providers.
Can big cities recreate the successes — and avoid the failures — of Americas smaller cities (340 of them) that have cut out the giant providers? The city of Riverside, CA laid the foundation for its comeback from municipal trouble and the threat of federal-government intervention with its own broadband network, created at the request of local businesses that tap into this infrastructure (another past blog post).
Another issue in major cities is the lack of trust in officials to sustain a new utility. Many residents are hesitant to place the fate of their internet service in the hands of their elected officials (who may struggle to accomplish even simple agendas), and the officials are hesitant to give up the leverage they have with AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon. The money it takes to put this infrastructure into place (think about if your city or town didn’t have telephone poles or water mains…) is also a huge issue for many cash strapped cities.
It’s an investment (home ownership vs. renting an apartment) that has potential to make itself back given the right circumstances and proper drive to tackle large projects, but it seems that it is very much a case-by-case decision for each city.