Hate Your ISP? Maybe You Need Community Fiber

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co-authored this post.

Between the net neutrality debate and the Comcast/TWC merger, high-speed Internet access is getting more attention than ever. A lot of that attention is negative, and rightly so: 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. Many of us don't like those options.

That’s one reason folks have been looking to the FCC to enact neutrality rules. If there’s no competition, customers can’t vote with their wallets when ISPs behave badly. Beyond the neutrality issue, 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.

But guess what: we don’t have to rely entirely on the FCC to fix the problems with high-speed internet access. Around the country, local communities are taking charge of their own destiny, and supporting community fiber.  

Unfortunately, those 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.  

We need to break those barriers. Community fiber, done right, should be a crucial part of the future of the Internet. To see why, let’s take a deeper dive.

What Is Community Fiber?

  • Fast, Cheap, and Community Controlled

People love to complain about the speed of their Internet access and with good reason.  International surveys regularly show that we pay more, for less, than many other countries. 

Fiber is fast. Really fast. Chattanooga'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.

Fiber isn’t usually cheap, in part because the companies building it out have focused on business customers. But communities that have deployed residential fiber can typically offer rates that are equal to or cheaper than traditional residential competitors.

  • A Universe of Alternatives

As we noted above, in many communities there are only one or two choices for Internet access, most often the local monopoly cable company or the local monopoly telephone company. A recent report illustrated how much people hate these companies, but with no alternative, many continue to pay the Internet bill month after month. And the recent trends suggest that mergers between these giants will further consolidate one's choices for Internet access.

Community fiber, properly deployed and managed, can give at least some of us a way out. 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.

  • High Speed Access For All

The FCC's 2011 Broadband Progress Report found that rural communities are particularly underserved when it comes to high-speed Internet access. Internet companies just don’t have the financial incentive to invest in building the networks.

Back in the cities, we continue to see "Digital Redlining." Communities of color have been deemed “unprofitable” and “risky” for early private sector telecommunications investments, and often continue to be excluded from that essential private investment.

In contrast, many community fiber projects include a baseline level of service that is provided for free or include plans to build free open wireless networks on top of the fiber infrastructure. Community fiber projects can aim for and achieve truly universal access by taking the matter into their own hands.

  • Community Self-Reliance

Another motivator for some community fiber projects is the desire some communities have to be in charge of their own essential communications infrastructure. Rather than wait on an opportunity to win the Google Fiber lottery, they seek to proactively build the high-speed infrastructure their communities need. Many cities believe this is key for economic development, citing the business demand for fiber service.

The city of Santa Monica, California is a great example. Thanks, in part, to a city plan to build out their fiber network any time the streets were being dug up for any other purpose, Santa Monica, aka "Silicon Beach," has become a hub for many technology companies and startups. 

  • "Smart" Cities of the Future, Here Today

Beyond the schools, libraries, hospitals, and emergency operation centers that municipalities want connected to a fiber network, municipalities also often have assets like traffic lights, parking meters, street lights, surveillance cameras, sprinklers, buses and so on that, if connected to the fiber network or open wireless enabled by that fiber network, can become part of a "smart city" where software controls enable new efficiencies.

Imagine the Director of Public Works using her smart phone to reschedule all the sprinklers in the city with just a few clicks. Proponents argue that in 20 years a city without such a fiber network will seem to us today like a city without paved roads. In this future, that a firefighter might not be able to instantly download a building's blueprints right from the scene of the blaze will seem unthinkable.

Challenges Facing Community Fiber

Given the benefits of community fiber, the increasing need for high-speed Internet access, and the simultaneously decreasing number of alternatives, why don’t we all have it?  Therein lie some lessons and opportunities.   

  • Some Cities Have Tied Their Own Hands.

The Berkman Center at Harvard recently released a report that detailed the sad situation in the District of Columbia, which has a robust fiber network that it cannot provide to its own businesses or residents. In 1999, as part of Comcast's franchise renewal negotiations, Comcast offered to provide the District with exclusive use of a portion of its private fiber loop. In exchange, the District agreed not to sell or lease the fiber and not to "engage in any activities or outcomes that would result in business competition between the District and Comcast or that may result in loss of business opportunity for Comcast."

Comcast effectively reneged on its part of the deal, but for complicated reasons the District was still stuck with the “non-compete” obligation. A recent article suggested that hundreds of municipalities have made similar non-compete agreements that may impede a community fiber rollout.

  • Twenty States Have Laws That Ban or Hinder Community Fiber

Some states have, typically under intense lobbying efforts by incumbent interests, enacted laws that ban or hinder municipalities from pursuing their own fiber projects.

Fortunately FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler, has recently made numerous comments indicating that he believes the FCC has the authority to preempt such state laws to enable greater local competition. Two communities affected by them have petitioned the FCC to take action. You can tell the FCC your thoughts about this.

  • There Are Good Reasons Not to Want the Government to be Your ISP

Just because a local municipality might own the fiber infrastructure does not necessarily mean it is also best-suited to act as an ISP to residents. Residents might rightly wonder what sort of information sharing practices would become policy, particularly information sharing with law enforcement.

This challenge can be addressed as well. Cities can help resolve privacy concerns by adopting the open access model described above. On this model the local municipality merely leases the fiber and never has to have access to the data on the fiber. Local ISPs that lease the fiber can be held accountable by users that encourage the ISPs to adopt privacy-protecting policies and terms of service.

  • Expect Opposition from the Incumbents

Any locality that pursues a community fiber project should be prepared to hear how the sky is falling from the incumbent monopolies. Past experience shows that they will fight hard against anything that might bring about more competition and hence a reduction to their bottom lines. Incumbents may raise various specious arguments and advocates and decision-makers will need to understand and be prepared with counter-arguments. We are preparing a community fiber toolkit for local activists that will help. 

Conclusion

Community Fiber can play a role in addressing several important problems facing widespread high-speed Internet access, but it faces many challenges as well. Each community will need to tailor its approach to their local circumstances and will want to learn from the experiences of those that have tread this path already. We hope we can raise this issue's profile and shine a light on a path forward.

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