Muni Broadband 101: What You Need to Know

By Nicole DuPuis.

What is the difference between broadband service provided to residents of Danville, Vir., Chattanooga, Tenn., San Leandro, Calif. and service in other similar communities across the country?

Speed. Price. Coverage.

Why is this the case? It’s simple: the role of municipal government.

Starting today and through the end of 2014, CitiesSpeak will feature a series of blogs on the ins and outs of municipal broadband, the national policy debate and developments related to this issue, and the innovative ways in which cities, big and small, are handling this rapidly unfolding new universe.

While this is not the first time NLC has addressed broadband issues or adoption, this series is committed to clearing some of the ambiguity surrounding these topics.

Telecom policy is complicated, and certainly difficult to keep up with these days. The discussion seems to be populated by a number of buzz-words as well. We hear more and more about who has easy access and first service (“deployment” and “adoption”), who owns the service (“municipal broadband” vs. “ISPs”) who reaps the most benefits (“literacy” and “monopoly”) who is being left behind (“digital divide”).

This is all comparable to peeling an onion the more you pull the layers back, the more nuanced and complex the solutions seem to become. The fact is the telecom policy universe is vast, and sometimes it’s challenging to reconcile the ways in which everything fits together, and frankly, why city leaders should care.

Municipal broadband and the role of the city in providing this service has changed significantly over the last few years. At this point in the broadband deployment game, most households in America have the option to purchase broadband service from one or two large cable providers. The limited competition in the market and recent mergers among providers are raising monopoly concerns for net neutrality and consumer rights advocates alike.

So what does this mean for cities? And what’s their role in solving this complicated policy problem?

Municipalities are meeting this challenge by building out their own networks in states that allow it. For many cities this is a game-changer that represents not only equity in access but also economic competitiveness.

Municipal networks offer high-speed internet service to citizens at affordable prices (sometimes for free), force competition into local ISP markets, encourage economic development and new business, and help local governments and municipal services to function more efficiently. Most importantly, they meet the specific internet needs of a community, as the citizens and individuals there know and define them.

The City of Danville (population 42,996) once had the highest unemployment rate in the state of Virginia. The city’s low-skilled population made it difficult to attract the types of industry that would sustain development in the region. While general communications access (telephone, cable TV, and Internet) was adequate for the home consumer, it was not optimized for businesses. Building a network that would help expand business opportunities as well as wire public anchor institutions was one of the key features of Danville’s approach to local economic development.

The resulting open access, multiservice fiber network – nDanville – allows the city to provide direct service to schools and other city buildings as well as residential and business service. The network has been able to attract new businesses to the city and Danville has now gone from having the highest unemployment in Virginia to boasting a world-class technology infrastructure, revitalized downtown, new jobs, and a skilled workforce.

Blog entries over the next couple of weeks will further explore the ways municipal networks are taking shape across the country, all of the different players and perspectives involved in the internet democracy discussion, intersections with net neutrality, the onslaught of anti-muni laws, the interplay between cities and Google Fiber, and the innovative public private partnerships developing around muni networks. Revisit CitiesSpeak in the coming weeks to follow this series.

Originally posted at Cities Speak.

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