We’ve been saying for months that while the FCC may have a role to play in promoting and protecting an open Internet, Internet users shouldn’t rely entirely on the FCC. That’s because, at root, the “neutrality” problem is a competition problem. Internet access providers, especially certain very large ones, have done a pretty good job of divvying up the nation to leave most Americans with only one or two choices for decent high-speed Internet access. If there’s no competition, customers can’t vote with their wallets when ISPs behave badly. Oligopolies also have little incentive to invest, not only in decent customer service, but also in building out world-class Internet infrastructure so that U.S. innovators can continue to compete internationally. Even in cities like San Francisco and New York, we pay more for slower connections than people in many Asian and European cities.
So it’s appropriate that President Obama chose today, a day of action to promote net neutrality, to express his strong support for broadband competition, and particularly initiatives promoting community broadband.
Community broadband, properly deployed and managed, can give at least some of us an alternative to typical broadband duopoly. Take Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga’s's local power utility operates a fiber optic Internet service that currently offers a 1 Gigabit speed package (1,000 Mbps) for just $69.99/month. For most of us that would be a 50x speed increase or better. Many fiber services are also symmetrical, offering the same upload speed as download speed.
There are a variety of models for community broadband. One particularly attractive model is called "open access." Under an open access model, the local municipality might be the owner of the fiber infrastructure, but agrees to lease access to the system to anyone on non-discriminatory terms. This opens up the possibility of having many local ISPs competing for your business over the same fiber infrastructure and drastically reduces the cost of Internet service.
Given the benefits of community broadband, the increasing need for high-speed Internet access, and the simultaneously decreasing number of alternatives, why don’t we all have it? Unfortunately, communities face a number of barriers, from simple bureaucracy to state laws that impede a community's ability to make its own decisions about how to improve its Internet access. Indeed, thanks to intense lobbying efforts by incumbent telecom interests, many states have passed laws that ban or hinder municipalities from pursuing their own fiber projects. President Obama has urged the FCC to set aside those laws. In parallel, many state lawmakers are working to repeal the bans, as they see the benefits that community fiber brings to towns like Cedar Falls, Iowa; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Lafayette, Louisiana.
One way or another, community fiber will come to more and more forward-thinking towns across the United States, and we’re glad to see President Obama getting behind the movement. You can help, too. Learn more about community choices here, here, and here. And then get involved by calling on your local government and your state representatives to promote an open access fiber network in your town.