Residents in Falmouth (MA), like residents in many communities in Massachusetts, have begun to look toward fiber as a means to ensure faster and more reliable Internet service. Falmouth would be the first Cape Cod town to build a municipally owned fiber-optic network. Similar projects in towns across MA are underway or completed. Westfield Gas & Electric’s Whip City Fiber division is in the process of connecting 20 small rural towns to a fiber-optic network in Western MA. The fiber is already live in Alford and Otis.
One of the first decisions a community needs to make in bringing broadband to residents is what sort of network to operate. Should the network be closed, with one Internet service provider providing service to residents; open and lit, providing the basic infrastructure for potentially competing ISPs; or open with dark fiber leased to competing ISPs? All three models have their proponents and detractors. In my experience and opinion, no one model is ideal for every community. Each option impacts how a community will build and operate a network, and each has advantages and disadvantages.
The disadvantages inherent to rural towns – geography, low population density and lack of fiber density – compound one another to make sourcing middle-mile transport unusually difficult for rural municipalities. In addition, incumbents that might provide backhaul generally aren’t thrilled with the prospect of losing market share. They may view municipal network initiatives as competitive threats and resist working with municipalities on sourcing middle-mile transport and/or lobby to fight them in their quest to modernize.
Arkansas is the least connected of the 50 states. Since 2011, the state has banned cities and towns from building their own networks, outlawing a local solution that has been hailed as an effective way for communities to connect themselves when they don’t have internet providers. In 2019, however, AR appears to be having a change of heart. Under the weight of constituent complaints about lousy internet—and after years of waiting for subsidies to goad telecommunication giants into expanding the infrastructure—the state legislature in Feb passed a bill to repeal its ban.
Local communities in the state of Mississippi have the legal authority to develop publicly owned Internet networks and offer broadband, or any other utility, to the general public. When it comes to bonding in order to financing deployment for broadband infrastructure, however, the law isn’t as cut and dry. In order to stay on the right side of the law, the community of Columbus (MS) decided to obtain permission from the state legislature to issue bonds for a $2.75 million expansion of their existing fiber optic network.
The climate for municipal broadband has worsened significantly since our last report in 2018. There are now 26 states with laws on the books that either roadblock or ban outright municipally-owned broadband networks. These laws — some of them passed just last year — point to a growing tension between state lawmakers and municipal, county and local governments, whose interests seem often at odds with one another. The telecom industry’s lobbying efforts have had tangible ramifications on state laws governing municipal broadband.
For several years now, Tacoma (WA) has pondered the fate of its Click! municipal open access network. In the spring of 2018, the community issued an RFI/Q searching for interested private sector partners that would lease the network from the Tacoma Power Utility (TPU). After reviewing responses, consulting experts, and comparing potential arrangements, Tacoma has narrowed the field of possible partners. The goal is to put the network on a sustainable and competitive footing both financially and technologically. Tacoma is following a path that will retain public ownership of the Click!
Recently, Tennessee made a smart investment in its digital future when the state awarded $14.8 million in funding to local broadband projects. This funding is a welcome recognition that local networks are really good at connecting Tennesseans to high-quality, reliable, affordable internet access. But Tennessee can do more. The state could expand next-generation internet access to an even greater number of households without spending a dollar by allowing municipal fiber optic networks to expand to areas that want their service.
The surprising role of the rural co-ops in providing high-speed internet mirrors an important chapter in US history, and sheds light on the financial challenges of connecting rural America, where residents say the lack of high-speed internet makes them feel left behind. After hearing requests, the Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative in Mansfield (PA), surveyed its members to see if they wanted the co-op in the broadband business. The response was a resounding yes.
Fiber cities know the difference between publicly overseen networks, aimed at providing a utility service, and wholly private, “demand-driven” communications networks. There is no single meaning of the word utility, but the concept is familiar to many people. The basic idea is that a utility is a service that 1) relies on a physical network of some kind and 2) is a basic input into both domestic and economic life. A utility is not a luxury.