Recent FCC Proceedings Highlight Importance of Equity, Local Control

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski Speaks On Net NeutralityFormer FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski speaks to the media on the importance of net neutrality on December 1, 2010 at the headquarters of the FCC in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Like so many aspects of our national infrastructure, internet service has become such an integral part of our work, our personal lives, and our social interactions that we tend to take it for granted; we don’t often pay much attention to the World Wide Web until we no longer have access to it. That all changed last Thursday, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on two widely-publicized proceedings: one related to the issue of net neutrality, and another regarding petitions filed by telecommunications utilities in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to overcome state barriers to the expansion of municipal broadband networks. In two 3-2 votes, the FCC supported the Chattanooga and Wilson petitions to preempt state laws restricting municipal broadband networks, and adopted a new Open Internet Order which reclassifies broadband Internet access as a common carrier telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act.

These decisions speak to the basic tenets of democracy and equity. The internet, which is one of our country’s most sound economic engines, has also developed into a carrier of social good. It protects our right to free speech, broadens our access to information, and enables us to communicate across physical boundaries. Policies that view and protect these services as institutionalized goods to which the public should have unrestricted access reflect democratic ideals and a spirit of equality among all citizens.

Despite their relative obscurity in the public lexicon, the recent decisions made by the FCC are the product of debates in which policy wonks and advocates have been engaged for years. The issues around which the decisions are based received more public attention and increased media coverage in recent months as a result of many factors, including President Obama’s official statements addressing these topics and television personality John Oliver’s rousing (and hilarious) explanation of net neutrality on his late-night television show. This extra attention prompted a massive outpouring of comments submitted to the FCC during the proposed rules’ public comment periods. There were over 4 million comments submitted regarding the Open Internet proceedings – more than any other policy issue in the Commission’s history. This sent the clear message that, despite John Oliver’s declaration of this topic as “boring,” the American people recognize the gravity and importance of these decisions.

Municipal Broadband

Perhaps you followed our previous series on the ins and outs of municipal broadband, which provided a basic overview of muni-broadband networks. Municipal (muni) networks, also referred to as community networks, are built and managed by and within city or regional boundaries. In the case of the recent FCC decision, two cities with existing community networks located in states that subsequently passed anti-muni laws petitioned to expand broadband service outside of their current footprints in response to numerous requests from neighboring unserved and underserved communities. The FCC found that provisions of the anti-muni laws in these states are barriers to broadband deployment, investment and competition, and conflict with the FCC’s mandate to promote these goals. The Commission voted to allow Chattanooga and Wilson to expand their existing networks. Chairman Wheeler, Commissioner Clyburn and Commissioner Rosenworcel voted in favor of the petitions, and in their statements underscored the importance of broadband as a necessity for local growth and opportunity and highlighted the value of municipal broadband in meeting these goals, particularly in areas where service was not provided by industry.

This represents a success for cities, underscoring the importance of local control in infrastructure investments that serve cities’ needs. In response to the FCC’s decision, NLC CEO & Executive Director Clarence Anthony stated that “today’s vote underscores the critical role of local governments in providing broadband services that are integral to a strong, 21st century economy that benefits residents and strengthens communities. Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., are examples of the successful role local governments can play to ensure that high-speed, affordable broadband is available to our cities’ residents. While their petitions to the FCC only apply to their individual municipal broadband initiatives, today’s ruling sets a precedent that acknowledges the need for local flexibility to meet individual community needs. Each community is different, and local governments must have the flexibility and authority to make the best choices for their residents.”

Open Internet/Net Neutrality

The term “net neutrality” is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. This principle became the ideological basis of the internet as we know it today; the idea of a free and open communications infrastructure did more to catalyze a new age of human connectivity than any other advancement in recent history. It also ushered in a new age of business by modernizing economic transactions and offering the perfect platform for entrepreneurs. Those who wished to start a business but lacked capital could simply build a web presence – thus, the internet became the incubator of the everyman.

The FCC’s recent vote allowed for the regulation of the internet under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, treating it as a public utility and allowing the Commission to regulate it as such. The new rules enable the FCC to prohibit paid prioritization, which would allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block or restrict certain content, essentially dividing the internet into “fast lanes” for companies and higher-paying customers and “slow lanes” for the general public. More information is available in the FCC’s press release on this topic.

The FCC’s net neutrality ruling will not subject ISPs to rate regulation, tariff unbundling or any other new taxes or fees. However, opponents of net neutrality have already proposed counter-legislation and threatened lawsuits. The FCC has braced itself for a bevy of aggressive litigation.

Better for Cities

The FCC decision on municipal broadband represents a major win for local policy makers in that they restored local control and enabled the cities of Chattanooga and Wilson to provide improved services in their communities. Municipal broadband networks offer high-speed internet access at affordable prices; they encourage economic development in cities and towns; they help local government and municipal services to function more efficiently; and most importantly, they meet the specific needs of a community as defined by its citizens. Municipal networks underscore the notion that internet access is a right, not a privilege, and that local governments can and should intervene to ensure that this right is protected equally for all Americans.

Nicole DuPuis bio photoAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

Mayors: A Responsive City Needs Great Internet Access

This is a guest post by Susan Crawford.

fiber opticsIn theory, fiber-optic cables have the capacity to transmit data at unlimited speeds. As of this writing, data has been successfully transmitted at more than 40 terabits per second – fast enough to allow you to upload a 1TB hard drive in 1/5th of a second. (Getty Images)

A recent Webby Awards/Harris Interactive poll found that consumers – constituents, in other words – have come to expect real-time tracking, same-day delivery, and the opportunity to provide instant feedback regarding every service and business they encounter. 80 percent of respondents said they expect payments to be handled automatically, 85 percent expect to see reviews from other customers, and 60 percent expect services to learn about their preferences. In the next five years, these expectations are only going to be higher; nearly 50 percent of respondents said they expect that there will be a service within the next five years that ships them products they need before they order them.

Meanwhile, the digital divide in U.S. cities remains staggering. 56 percent of Detroit households don’t have what the FCC calls “fixed broadband subscriptions” (meaning anything other than dial-up or mobile devices), and 40 percent have no Internet access at all (meaning they have no wired or mobile access). More than 36 percent of Cleveland residents have no Internet access at all. Miami, New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Chicago are all on the list as well. (Here’s the full ranking of cities with more than 50,000 residents.)

Mayors know that public trust in the institutions of the federal government is at record low levels these days. But mayors also know that public trust in local government remains strong. Mayors get things done; they don’t have time to play polarized, corrosive politics.

And here’s the kicker: polls show that world-class Internet access is becoming a voting issue in America.

What can a mayor do to ensure (a) the services his or her city is providing meet constituents’ expectations (keeping trust in the effectiveness of local government high), (b) all of his or her constituents have world-class, reasonably priced, high capacity Internet access where they live, work and play (so that every resident is treated with dignity and given the opportunity to thrive), and (c) constituents are convinced that tomorrow will be better than today?

The answer lies in municipal fiber. Its time has come.

Without city-controlled fiber-optic lines connecting municipal buildings and the pulsing infrastructure of the city – transport, energy, water, sewage, public safety etc. – your city won’t be able to gather, aggregate, visualize, collaborate over, ship around among agencies, report on, or even use the data you should know about in order to effectively manage a 21st century municipality. (You’ll find a useful set of case studies reporting on the exciting intersections among cities and data in my recent book, “The Responsive City,” co-authored with Stephen Goldsmith.) Only fiber has the symmetric (both upload and download) capacity you’ll need to handle these floods of data. And once it’s in, it’s good for decades – to upgrade, all you’ll need to do is swap out the electronics at the end points. As far as scientists can tell, fiber has an unlimited capacity to carry information. And in order to provide the digital window on your city that your voters will increasingly demand – the predictions, easy payment mechanisms, real-time services, visual feedback and data-driven policies they will expect from all interactions – you’ll need fiber.

Those fiber-optic lines linking city infrastructure need to be controlled by the city; your constituents need reasonably-priced connectivity. Starting with city buildings is a good way to launch a city network. Just ask my hometown of Santa Monica, California, which saved so much money by dropping leased services and wiring its municipal buildings itself that it now provides service to businesses – and is ready to move to fiber to the home.

And municipal fiber is how you can close the digital divide that is the scourge of so many U.S. cities. Think of that divide, now amplifying and entrenching existing social problems in your city, as similar to a failure to provide a functional street grid. You don’t have to provide retail services yourself, just as you don’t have to provide the cars and businesses that use your streets. Consider the case of Ammon, Idaho, a small conservative town that built a passive fiber (as opposed to fiber-optic) network over which a host of competing service providers can sell directly to residents. Only a city builds streets; similarly, no private company would have an incentive to serve everyone with basic infrastructure, but every private company will rejoice in having reasonably-priced, unlimited communications capacity as a basic input into everything it needs to do. For more evidence, look at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Finally, the excitement, pride, and relief of people who see that their city is capable of great things will add up to votes for the leaders involved. People are aching for reliable, effective, nonpartisan leadership. They still trust their mayors, many of whom have recently joined Next Century Cities to learn more about municipal fiber.

​Now that about twenty states have put barriers in place making community high speed Internet access initiatives difficult (and we know additional state barriers will be proposed this year), local leaders are also banding together in the Coalition for Local Internet Choice to oppose barriers to local choice.​

Why? Because these state-imposed limits are bad for the communities involved, bad for the private sector, and bad for America’s global competitiveness. 2015 looks like a good year for forward thinking.

Susan Crawford bio photoAbout the author: Susan Crawford is the John A. Reilly Visiting Professor in Intellectual Property at the Harvard Law School (2014) and a co-director of the Berkman Center. She is the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, co-author of The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance, and a contributor to Medium.com’s Backchannel.

The Who, What and Why of Google Fiber

Having your city selected for deployment of Google Fiber has many of the same subsequent effects as the development of a municipally owned network.

Google-Fiber-2Photo credit: UCFFool (Mario at Google Fiber – Kansas City, MO), via Wikimedia Commons

Google has built itself securely into our everyday lives. Between Google mail, Google chat and Google maps, few of us get through the day without relying on one of this gargantuan company’s products or programs. Most people probably default to the company’s website when they are searching for anything on the internet. In fact, the word Google is nearly ubiquitous with the web.

However, tucked into the Google empire’s large portfolio is one of its more discreet and misunderstood programs: Google Fiber. What is it? How does it differ from or compliment a municipal broadband network? Most importantly, why is Google doing this? As part of our Muni Broadband blog series, we will unpack the role of Google Fiber in the broadband game and explore the ways that it supports cities in their efforts to expand internet access.

Google Fiber provides broadband internet service to a small (yet increasing) number of cities throughout the United States. The initial locality for the service was chosen through a competition, in which cities and towns submitted applications and initiated various sorts of campaigns to garner support.

On March 30, 2011, Google announced Kansas City, Kan. as the first recipient of the fiber to the premises service. Subsequently the service was expanded to Kansas, City, Mo., and in 2013 several suburban communities in the Kansas City area were announced, along with Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah.  In February 2014, Google announced 34 additional prospective cities which they invited to be a part of a collaborative process to explore deployment options.

Google offers households and businesses three tiers of service: 1) Free broadband internet service with 5 Mb/s download speed[1] and 1 Mb/s upload speed; 2) 1 Gb/s (upload and download speed) broadband internet service for approximately $70.00 per month; and 3) 1Gb/s broadband internet service with television service for approximately $120.00 per month.

Having your city selected for deployment of Google Fiber has many of the same subsequent effects as the development of a municipally owned network. It ensures that people have access to quality, high speed internet that is affordable, and it spurs economic development. Kansas City saw a surge of start-ups and entrepreneurs following the deployment of the service, including Homes for Hackers, an incubator that hosts and supports entrepreneurs with Fiber connections so that they can develop their new business ideas. That’s why cities are so eager to compete for the chance to get it. Google pays for the infrastructure investment, and the community reaps all of the glorious benefits of municipally owned broadband without the payout and management responsibility.

Google’s choice to host their services in particular cities hinges on several variables. Some cities have existing infrastructure-pipes and fibers already in the ground that make them attractive prospects. Geography always plays into the cost-benefit analysis of prospective infrastructure projects. Another concern is whether right-of-way and other administrative negotiations will go smoothly.

Because the types of agreements and negotiations necessary for Google Fiber projects to run smoothly become increasingly complex in large cities, some have argued that there is less likelihood that we will see Google Fiber deploy in cities like Chicago or New York. Some cities, like Washington, D.C., have non-compete agreements with large telecom companies that keep away Google Fiber as well as the possibility of opening up existing high-speed fiber to residents.

While it’s a shame to think about the fact that some communities might have a better chance at securing these services than others, the ultimate remaining question is not where but why. Why is Google, a multi-billion dollar corporation, investing in pricey broadband infrastructure on which they will see virtually no return? In the organization’s vast portfolio, Google Fiber is one of the smaller projects. However, Google’s announcements of new service locations are impactful, especially with communications service providers (CSPs) who are already selling internet and television service in these areas.

AT&T, for instance, has committed to comparable, high speed service in several of the prospective Fiber locations announced by Google, and some speculate that this might just be the tech giant’s plan. By deploying high speed, low cost broadband service in communities across the nation, Google is both raising the bar for existing service and injecting more competition into the market.

Despite the enthusiasm surrounding these deployments, they tend to move very slowly, mostly because this is new territory for both Google and its host cities. Kansas City saw departures from the originally promised deployment timeline, and Austin promoted the service for over a year before residents were able to begin signing up.

Additionally, new roll outs of service have forced Google to squarely face the reality of the digital divide. In Kansas City, Google found that only the more affluent neighborhoods were signing up for the service, and that there were large swaths of the city without internet access. To address this disparity, Google hired a field team to promote the new service to low subscribing communities and initiated several programs and grant funding opportunities around digital literacy. With new opportunities come new challenges, and Google has worked with cities to overcome some of the initial hurdles.

In a way, Google Fiber has the same impact on the broadband game in communities as the build out of municipal broadband networks. It offers better, more affordable service, deflects the power of telecom monopolies and duopolies, and promotes economic development. It is no wonder that cities across the country are begging for the service. The difference is the seemingly philanthropic position of the service provider, Google. Perhaps Fiber is meant to catalyze improved internet services in the market, or perhaps Google is trying to dominate the connectivity market. Either way, cities win.

[1] Free for up to 10 years per address.

Nicole DuPuis bio photoAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

Local Action, State Support Needed for Muni Broadband Expansion

This is a guest post by Angela Siefer.

Broadband-CafeGetty Images

According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, over 400 communities in the United States have a publicly owned broadband network. But how did they get there? How did they access the poles? Where did they find existing assets? Are those assets available for anyone to use? How was the network paid for?  In some cases, these projects were made possible with support from state partners. Since our past blog posts in this series provided a basic overview of municipal networks, this post will focus on how local officials can work with state policymakers. As you may have guessed, it can get complicated.

Projects that increase broadband availability, affordability and adoption tend to occur at the local level but they need state level support. That support can come in the form of access to open networks, state rights of way, dig once policies and facilitating coordination. To date, 19 states have legislated barriers that discourage community broadband projects. Since broadband deployment tends to occur at the local level, states that avoid placing restrictions on who can own and operate a broadband network leave more options open for local entities to implement innovative solutions.

If you think of the Internet as a highway system, the middle mile is the highway and the on/exit ramps and the streets are the last mile. Government funded broadband build-out (by the National Telecommunications Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture) tends to focus on middle mile construction. Owners of middle mile networks choose whether or not to make their fiber open to use by competitors. State governments that mandate their fiber be open to use by anyone (at reasonable cost based rates) can help decrease the cost of build-out, whether by for-profit companies, non-profits or governmental entities.

Here are several examples of state level policies supporting local work to build out community broadband networks:

State Level Policies That Expand State Rights of Way

Arizona SB 1402, the Digital Arizona Highways Bill was passed and signed in 2012. The bill expanded the Arizona Department of Transportation’s state rights-of-way to include transportation of information, in addition to vehicles. Whenever funding is available, the Arizona Department of Transportation may install broadband conduit and lease the conduit to providers at a cost-based rate. In Gigabit Communities: Technical Strategies for Facilitating Public or Private Broadband Construction in Your Community, CTC Technology and Energy declares, “state officials estimate that the incremental cost of placing the conduit during other construction processes is comparable to the cost of painting stripes on the highway.” It is a low cost investment that benefits everyone.

State Use of Federal Policies

The FTTH (Fiber To the Home Council) encourages states to utilize the federal pole attachments statute (Section 224 of the Communications Act 5), through which “states are able to assert jurisdiction and require all owners of poles, ducts, and conduits to make those facilities available to new entrants on a non-discriminatory basis and at reasonable (cost-based) rates, terms, and conditions.” The FTTH Council position paper “State and Local Government Role in Facilitating Access to Poles, Ducts, and Conduits in Public Rights-of-Way” lists Vermont, Massachusetts and Oregon as examples of states that have mandated access to poles, ducts and/or conduits.

State Coordination Efforts

States can help facilitate coordination of broadband infrastructure projects among interested partners. With coordination from the State of Connecticut Office of Consumer Counsel, an initial five municipalities issued a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to Develop Gigabit Internet Networks in Connecticut. This RFQ has three goals:

  1. Create a world-leading gigabit-capable network in targeted commercial corridors – as well as in residential areas with demonstrated demand – in order to foster innovation, drive job creation and stimulate economic growth;
  2. Provide free or heavily discounted 10-100 MB (minimum) Internet service over a wired or wireless network to underserved and disadvantaged residential areas across the territories and diverse demographics; and
  3. Deliver gigabit Internet service at prices comparable to other gigabit fiber communities across the nation.

This effort reinforces an extensive state fiber network, streamlined processes governing rights-of-way, and a single administrative point of contact for building broadband infrastructure.

State partners can play a critical role in the build-out of municipal networks. Most importantly, they can support innovation and progress with smart policies and carefully executed support to local projects. The outcome is increased opportunity for local governments to improve broadband availability, affordability and adoption.

Angela-Siefer-HeadshotAbout the Author: Angela Siefer is a digital inclusion consultant and an adjunct fellow at the Pell Center, Salve Regina University. She is currently finishing up the Pell Center State-Level Broadband Policy Primer. You can find more of her work at http://angelasiefer.com.

What is a Muni Network? Here are the Basics.

munibroadbandA user surfs the Internet at a free Wi-Fi hotspot provided by the City of New York. Getty Images.

If you were to ask 100 people to define a network, you might get 101 responses. That’s because the word “network” has permeated nearly every professional and academic sector, and takes on a different meaning in each one. Some people hear it and they think of their professional colleagues. Others might think of the highly-acclaimed movie about Facebook, The Social Network. While the latter of those two associations is closest to the subject at hand, this blog (the second in our Muni Broadband 101 series) deals with neither.

In the telecom universe, the term network refers to the platform by which we, as users, access the world-wide web. It is simplest to think of a network as a group of computers connected by telephone lines, cable lines, or radio waves. The term broadband is shorthand for broad bandwidth and references the speed and capacity of the platform.

Broadband service is provided to the public in two ways. The most common is by private companies, such as Verizon, Comcast and Cox, which are branded in industry circles as CSPs (communications service providers). This private network access is typically offered to consumers in tri-partite package form along with cable tv and telephone service, a practice that is referred to as bundling. However, it is acknowledged that CSPs don’t always provide broadband service to all parts of the community.  This is where municipal networks come in.

Municipal (muni) networks (also referred to as community networks) are those that are built out and run by and within the bounds of a city or region. This includes the deployment of Wi-Fi or fiber technologies that are managed in a number of different ways, but always with some involvement from municipal government. And the services from municipal networks can range from connecting public institutions to commercial services to households, like in the case of Bristol, Va., which offers residential broadband speed of up to 1Gbps.

We gauge a broadband network’s quality in terms of the successful, speedy delivery of information “packets” (email, streaming video, etc.), and the amount of traffic it can handle. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the official definition of high speed internet service is 4 Mbps or more. While this has reigned as the government’s definition for high speed broadband for some time, it might not cut it these days with new demands on networks like streaming video and other applications that use a lot of bandwidth. The FCC has considered updating that definition to acknowledge changes in the way we use the internet.

Muni broadband projects are undertaken by cities for a number of reasons, most of which are related to one of internet’s three As: availability, affordability, and adoption. These three words encompass most of the social equity discussions related to internet. In some cases, cities attempt to bolster their economies with the provision of high-speed service that will attract new businesses. The City of Santa Monica, Calif. built a fiber network which has lowered costs for telecommunications. In addition to the economic benefits of retaining existing and attracting new businesses, their network allows for greater engagement with the community through online services and information.

In other cases, cities build out muni networks because they want reliable, affordable internet access for their residents (some Americans still don’t have it). The Town of Mansfield, Conn. provides free wireless Internet access in public school buildings as well as in most of the indoor and outdoor areas of the Mansfield Public Library, Community Center, Senior Center and Town Hall. This allows those who cannot afford access at home an opportunity to get online.

While some muni networks are managed solely by municipal government, similarly to public utilities, others are funded and managed via public-private partnerships. For instance, Lit San Leandro is a public-private partnership between the City of San Leandro and San Leandro Dark Fiber LLC. Lit San Leandro owns and operates the switch and routing facilities that provides high-speed Internet service and as a result is bringing tech start-ups and entrepreneurs to the community. This allows entrepreneurs to advertise and sell their products and services online and compete with much larger businesses on a level playing field.

Muni broadband networks have the potential to empower citizens by increasing civic participation, facilitating learning, and strengthening neighborhood businesses. They help to foster stronger economies while underscoring the notions of democracy that we all hold dear. And most importantly, muni networks, with all of their different governance models (public, public-private), can work in all cities, as their flexibility allows communities to determine what it is that they want and need for their futures.

ND headshotAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

Muni Broadband 101: What You Need to Know

Municipal broadband networks meet the specific internet needs of a community — as the citizens and individuals there know and define them.

wifiA free Wi-Fi hotspot beams broadband Internet from atop a public phone booth. The City of New York launched a pilot program to provide free public Wi-Fi at public phone booths around the five boroughs. Photo credit: Getty Images.

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.

ND headshotAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.