One might think this is the moment for community broadband networks. The truth is, locally-directed networks have been serving their communities for a long, long time. In discussing his administration’s plans for broadband, President Joe Biden noted that municipal and cooperative networks should be favored because these providers face less pressure to turn profits and are more committed to serving entire communities.
Gigi Sohn is still up for confirmation by the Senate to complete the Federal Communications Commission. I’ve known Gigi for many years and respected her from the first time I saw her in action. She isn’t a political agent trying to figure out the best path to the top. She has strong beliefs, and she’ll tell you what they are in a wonderful Long Island blur of passion. She respects other beliefs and ideas but she isn’t going to pretend she agrees with you when she doesn’t.
Communities across the United States have gotten an unexpected gift from the Biden Administration in the form of additional flexibility to use American Rescue Plan funds for needed broadband investments, particularly those focused on low-income neighborhoods in urban areas. When Congress developed and passed the American Rescue Plan Act, it tasked the Treasury Department with writing the rules for some key programs, including the State & Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF).
One might think this is the moment for community broadband networks. The truth is, locally-directed networks have been serving their communities for a long, long time.
Most Republicans and many Democrats have framed broadband much like Ronald Reagan would: Get government out of the way, remove regulations, and let too-big-to-fail incumbent providers bridge the digital divide. A favorite target is public rights-of-way—every street plus about ten feet of land on each side where utility poles or underground utility lines are located, and where internet service providers attach or bury lines and equipment that transmit internet data.
Monopoly control of high-speed internet access is leaving many Americans — particularly rural communities and communities of color — disconnected, underserved, or, at best, paying too much for substandard service. While community scaled internet service providers are more effective at delivering fast, affordable, and reliable Internet, monopolies, state-level regulations, and other factors stand in the way of these locally driven solutions to America’s broadband challenges. The report recommends a range of policy actions for improving broadband at the local level, including:
The Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction results are a puzzle. The auction resulted in far more gigabit networks -- 85% of locations -- than anyone expected, at far lower subsidy than expected. However, there is a lot of frustration and confusion because it is not clear that some of the top bidders can deliver.
In 2008, Wilson (NC) began building a citywide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network called Greenlight. Access to high-speed, reliable, affordable Internet connections has helped the community cope with the public health crisis while continuing to bring a host of other benefits. Over the last 12 years, the Greenlight network has given the city claim to the best broadband anywhere in North Carolina.
Solving the problems of internet access goes well beyond throwing billions of dollars at the companies with the best lobbyists or most convincing executives. There is no single policy to solve the broadband problems faced by the nation. In most cases, better networks and lower prices would really help, but achieving that would require different strategies in rural or urban areas.