WASHINGTON, May 29, 2014 - Four believers in municipal internet access expressed their dismay at the New America Foundation at an increasingly consolidated broadband marketplace – and promoted local government ownership as a remedy.
Speaking on a panel of experts on Wednesday at the think tank, they blasted giants AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable for failing to dispense proper service for localities.
"The incumbents are not building and what we're hearing from our local communities is that these networks and no longer modern," said Catharine Rice of the Southeast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (SEATOA). "This [market] has failed because there are not competitive choices and that's why communities have stepped in. It's an infrastructure that they know they need for their community to be competitive in what is now a world market."
In many cases, giant companies won't invest in small localities at all because they don't yield enough profit, said Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
"If you go into some of the larger towns that have DSL, the best they can do now is seven Megabits per second (Mbps), or 12 Mbps depending on the town," Mitchell said. "This is more than 10 years after [some] areas were told, 'don't do anything yourself because we're going to come invest in you.'"
Outside of metropolitan areas, Mitchell said it's even more clear that investment will not occur.
"Unless you win the Google lottery or there's some interesting local provider, you're not going to have anyone who's going to challenge the big dominant cable companies and that's going to be more true as [the cable companies] get bigger," he said.
When large providers do invest, Mitchell said that service is often sub-par, but not because providers are malicious. Comcast, the panel said, was overwhelmed by demand for its services.
"[Comcast is] an amalgamation of maybe tens, probably hundreds of cable companies on diverse systems that don't talk well to each other," Mitchell said. "When you're serving over 20 million subscribers, you cannot do a good job."
Joanne Hovis of CTC Technology and Energy explained that local governments can mitigate this problem by building fiber to homes, businesses, and community anchor institutions either by themselves or in partnerships with private providers.
Local governments, she said, are closest to people and their day-to-day issues, making them more responsive to the needs of the community.
"Local elected officials and staff [run] into people in the grocery store every day saying, 'we have a problem, I can't get broadband to my business the way I need to.' We're hearing this message," Hovis said.
Hovis added that local governments were some of the "original innovators in broadband." They were among the first to offer Gigabit Network services for school districts and libraries. They were the first entities to start building fiber optics in cost-effective ways that took advantage of existing construction projects, she said.
"Local governments have a really impressive and unique track record," Hovis said. "There's 15 years of projects both on the infrastructure and the adoption side."
The most important ingredient in partnerships between private providers and municipalities, Hovis said, is to have a "real partner on the other side."
"No matter what you do, no matter how many assets you put on the table, [or] how much you subsidize, if there's not a partner on the other side who is really interested in your community and making substantial investments themselves, a lot of this is whistling in the wind."
One example of a successful publicly-owned network started in Wilson, North Carolina, said Greenlight General Manager Will Aycock. The community included 7,000 external customers and attracted numerous young people drawn to the newly established Gigabit Network.
"One of the things we see [in Wilson] is the migration of folks into the community," Aycock said. "Upload [speeds are] really important for creative class folks."
This network connected much of the community's schools, hospitals and libraries, Aycock said. More than 5,000 devices have been connected to the network.
"We live in the same community. We know what the needs are. We're easily accessible [and] we're very responsive," Aycock said.
Challenges arise as large providers like Comcast conduct lobbying campaigns aimed at prohibiting local networks, Rice said.
"I think the big issue is consolidation and massive power that Comcast has," Mitchell said. "Comcast is coming into D.C. now and hiring every last major lobbying and law firm to work on their side to make sure that nobody can be hired to work against it. This is a threat to our democracy.... Local governments can build networks that chip away at the monopoly power Comcast has."
Mitchell concluded by stressing that laws permitting "one size fits all" regulation are troublesome because what's true for one city may not true for a rural community.
"Each community has different assets, different entrepreneurs that have different goals,” he said. “Decisions should be made by that community because they have to live with the consequences of its action or inaction.”
Hovis and Rice both expressed the need to educate local statesmen on the workings of broadband and how faster networks can further advance the standard of life in the community.
"How can local governments stay out of the infrastructure that is the foundation of our economy, our democracy, and our education system, and our health care system?" Rice questioned. "It is the province of local government if it so chooses."