Can municipal broadband save the open internet?

No challenge around the future of the internet looms larger in the coming year than what to do in the aftermath of the repeal of net neutrality. Open internet proponents were stunned at last month’s vote, which struck at the heart of the belief that the internet should be free, fair and open for all users.

No such luck, unfortunately. As TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey discussed last month, there are very few options for reversing the decision at the federal level anytime soon. With Republican majorities in Congress and on the Supreme Court, there are no avenues to begin a “repeal of the repeal.” The FCC has voted, and the rule is going to become the rule.

That means the battle for an open internet is increasingly being waged at the Internet Service Provider (ISP) level. Despite some mollifying comments from traditional ISPs, few activists believe that commercial ISPs aren’t going to take advantage of the new revenue streams that paid prioritization will provide.

Unfortunately for millions of Americans, they have almost no choice in the matter either way. According to an analysis from the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR), roughly 129 million Americans have options for internet access only from previous net neutrality violators. And for tens of millions of Americans who still only have one ISP to “choose,” there is little hope of avoiding the effects of net neutrality.

Muni, muni, muni

For activists staring at the map, the only alternative to all of this is to just roll their own solution, and they are increasingly looking at municipal-owned broadband as a viable path for guaranteeing net neutrality.

The idea is simple. Internet access should be considered a human right, and a sort of local utility similar to electricity. It doesn’t make sense for multiple internet providers to lay fiber in the ground, any more than multiple power utilities should construct their own grid. Cities can construct the core infrastructure, and using an open access model, ISPs can lease bandwidth for their own customers.

The idea is hardly novel. Currently, 172 cities have near-comprehensive municipal broadband solutions for its citizens according to ILSR, which comprehensively tracks municipal network data. Hundreds more communities have at least some publicly owned broadband infrastructure.

Even more exciting, municipal broadband proponents were given a major victory this week in Fort Collins, where the city council voted unanimously in favor of constructing a municipal broadband solution for their city. That was following a closely watched proposition in the city last November in which voters supported municipal broadband 57 percent to 43 percent.

Several other cities, including startup leader San Francisco, are considering moving in this direction, as well.

The challenges are absolutely staggering

Municipal broadband seems like the savior of the open internet. Except the challenges its rollout face are so legion that I am deeply unconvinced muni broadband is the solution to the repeal of net neutrality.

First, and most obviously, is the level of political spending against these initiatives. Fort Collins, which has a population of 161,000 according to the census, was inundated with political spending from Comcast in the run-up to the vote. According to official disclosure forms, Comcast spent more than $900,000 on campaign expenditures against the municipal broadband vote, compared to $15,000 spent by a local citizens group in favor of the measure.

Yes, the measure was a success, but why was a measure needed in the first place? Well, because the telecom lobby in Colorado pushed for and got enacted a state law in 2005 mandating that any city interested in municipal broadband had to put the issue to a vote. Since then, dozens of Colorado cities and towns have voted to pursue municipal broadband, so it is possible to get public support for these initiatives. The problem is that the roadblocks will continue at every stage of the buildout process.

Even if cities can muster the energy to start building out their networks, actually laying the fiber becomes its own challenge. So far, most of the cities that have built out municipal broadband have been less dense suburban towns, where infrastructure construction is significantly cheaper and faster than in dense urban environments.

Fort Collins is an obvious example. With a density of about 3,000 people per square mile, the city is a medium-density city (San Francisco, for comparison, is six times the population density). Even so, the rollout for its municipal broadband is slated to take about three to five years according to the city. And that will take even longer if legal challenges from the telecom industry impedes that progress.

Perhaps more gravely, the city expects to spend roughly $130-150 million on the rollout and initial launch of municipal broadband, according to its most recent broadband business plan. That comes out to about $1,000 per person, even before any cost overruns or delays are taken into account.

That rollout becomes exponentially more complicated and expensive in cities like New York. The closest comp in this area is probably Verizon’s rollout of its Fios service in the region, which, according to some reports, has cost billions of dollars and still only covers roughly two-thirds of households in the city. Add in the crazy construction costs that plague urban infrastructure projects in such cities, and municipal broadband will launch about the time we rocket over to Mars on a Muskmobile.

Even if a city can build the network, there are significant operating issues. First is the rapid technology evolution in the internet space. Dialup begot cable which begot fiber, and now 5G is being held up as the next revolution in urban connectivity. That’s in just two decades. Unlike traditional utilities like water, sewage or even electricity, internet access is evolving at an astonishing rate, and requires continued active investment to maintain cutting edge capability.

The second challenge is around content filtering and privacy. While municipal broadband may be free and open, what content will a publicly owned ISP allow through? I have little doubt San Francisco users will be fine, but with tens of thousands of cities in the U.S., will there be variances in the level of internet freedom across the country? Telecom companies are hardly saints on filtering, but they also just want your money. Next year’s mayor may well care about what sites you are surfing.

I realize that in some circles, municipal broadband is the great savior of the open internet. But overall, I am not buying it. Spending tens of billions of dollars and waiting years for service is not my idea of a good solution to fix net neutrality.

If we want to fix net neutrality, then fix it. Although the FCC has ruled the way it has today, that doesn’t mean that the ruling is by any means permanent. Congress can still pass whatever law it wants regarding telecom regulation. As difficult as it is to pass a bill in Congress, it is enormously easier and cheaper than this alternative.

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