Bringing Competition to Internet Service
If you live in an American city, chances are you're getting a raw deal -- paying more for broadband, and yet getting slower service, than your urban counterparts around the world. Part of the reason is that the urban broadband market in the U.S. is effectively a duopoly, as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) noted last month. Without competition, there's less incentive for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to increase speeds, improve service, or slash prices. What's a city to do?
Bigger cities in the U.S. have relied almost exclusively on private companies to deliver broadband to residents, but the shine has come off this apple in recent years. Early on, the phone and cable companies leveraged their existing wires to squelch competition and dominate the broadband market. In the mid-2000s, cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco hoped companies like EarthLink or MetroFi would deliver citywide Wi-Fi to disrupt the ISP duopoly, but they didn't. Verizon and AT&T have rolled out some fiber-optic upgrades, but they have passed over many cities and neighborhoods. As a sign of desperation, one mayor threw himself in a freezing lake in a failed attempt to get Google to build a fiber-optic network in his town.
Taking the opposite approach, nearly 400 local governments have chosen to become public ISPs, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. If the FCC strikes down a series of state bans on municipal broadband, hundreds more cities may pursue this model, but it is unlikely this solution will work for major metros where two companies have already built networks and acquired customers. The cities to try this route so far have generally been ones that the national ISPs have passed over; the largest cities with municipal networks are Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lafayette, La., with populations of roughly 170,000 and 125,000 respectively. Many smaller cities will not have the technical capacity or political will to take this leap.
Instead of getting caught between views of broadband as a wholly public utility or as a totally private amenity, big cities need to cultivate private-sector, non-profit, and cooperative broadband solutions neighborhood by neighborhood. The key is providing an "open access" network -- infrastructure that multiple service providers can use without each having to invest in their own citywide network. Cities can piece a network like this together the way they accumulate park land and affordable housing: through requirements on private developers and strategic use of public assets.
The citywide open-access network connects to the Internet backbone, then to key points in neighborhoods, like our libraries, firehouses, schools, and media centers. (Many cities already operate "institutional networks" that connect these community anchors, but they cannot use them to deliver Internet service per agreements with the cable companies.) The network doesn't offer Internet service, merely the opportunity to move data from one point in the city to another point at very low cost. Whether the data is heading to or coming from the Internet isn't the city's concern.
The price of Internet bandwidth varies widely across a city, as does the possible speed. Right now, it's only universities, major financial corporations, some hospitals, and Big Internet that get access to the speed and volume pricing of the backbone. It should be more like getting a street vendor license or a hack license, and open to that level of entrepreneurial effort. And those top speeds should not be available only in a central business district, but also in at least one spot in every neighborhood.
Cities can build these networks piece by piece, using "dig once" policies that coordinate infrastructure projects. If you are going to dig up the streets or lay new pipes for any purpose, the city should also install fiber-optic lines and conduits for future lines. As Columbia Telecommunications Corporation describes in their "Gigabit Communities" report, even if the local government doesn't make immediate use of these assets, they can potentially lease access to private providers, lowering a company's construction costs and minimizing disruptions for residents. Cities can be more aggressive in expanding the network with broadband-related requirements on new development, such as as rights of way for rooftop wireless links or a mandated fiber-optic tie-in, as we might require a developer to connect to sewage and water systems.
Any efforts to streamline construction or add zoning requirements should not be at the expense of due process, however. Local policymakers -- even community boards and block captains -- need a basic literacy in broadband deployment to serve their appropriate function of oversight and public participation.
While cities can hope to connect every neighborhood, they need to target their effort where it is needed most or can do the most good. They can divide the city into more manageable-sized markets for issuing franchises to access city light poles, streets, and sewers. Google Fiber divided Kansas City into "fiberhoods" where a critical mass of committed subscribers would determine if the company would build to that area. Only later did they realize the level of outreach and organizing needed to promote broadband in chronically underserved areas. Cities can be more proactive, designating underserved areas as "broadband enterprise zones" where traditional economic development incentives such as tax breaks or loans help ISPs start or expand service. (My colleagues and I have proposed a methodology for identifying these zones and a model policy framework can be adapted from the Center for Social Inclusion's concept of an "Energy Investment District.") Low-income areas are already targeted for digital literacy programs, and occasionally for reduced service rates or other subsidies, but usually with the mistaken idea that the current service options are sufficient.
Even with no local government support, entrepreneurial providers like WasabiNet in St. Louis and BKFiber in Brooklyn are taking advantage of new wireless networking technologies to compete for customers in neighborhoods that have been chronically underserved. Community-based organizations like Red Hook Initiative in Brooklyn and Allied Media Projects in Detroit are also constructing neighborhood-scale wireless networks, using free software and teaching tools developed with the Open Technology Institute, where I work. Instead of public property, these organizers build on their relationships with residents, churches and other partners to install equipment.
Red Hook Initiative's project has boosted BKFiber by becoming a paying customer, raising the company's profile in the community, and helping it gain access to various rooftops to place equipment. Community-based, sometimes rather informal projects face considerable organizational and regulatory challenges, but they are increasingly within reach for neighborhood associations or cooperatives wishing to sponsor hotspots, develop a resilient emergency communication system, or share connections to the Internet. Cities that wanted to see more of these projects could fund them as education or job training and provide access to city property, so long as the process for doing so was transparent and continued to incorporate community participation.
Broadband is an essential service. Municipal governments have both a moral obligation and an economic motivation to connect all residents, but the ways for them to do this will vary from town to town. Not all governments will become Internet service providers, but all should take an active role in ensuring a vibrant and competitive broadband marketplace for their residents. None can rest while the current duopoly remains in place.
Joshua Breitbart is a senior research fellow with New America's Open Technology Institute.