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The Municipal Broadband Debate: Should Towns Build Fiber Networks?

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“Municipal broadband” is rapidly taking a leading role in legislative debates around the country, but just what exactly is it, and why is there such a heated debate? In short, municipal broadband is a broadband internet service provided partially or fully by a local government. There are many states debating legislation which limit the ability of local communities to provide this sort of municipal access; and even more towns trying to implement it.

A map of towns with municipal broadband, and states that have restricted it.

The debate over municipal broadband centers around a tug of war between states and towns over the town’s ability to provide the service. Towns look to municipal broadband investments often because the large internet providers in their area are unwilling to upgrade their often slow services. Many states, on the other hand, are pushing legislation which limit the ability of local communities to provide this sort of municipal access.

The best example of a town that implemented municipal broadband is Chattanooga Tennessee, a city of 170,000 which offers a 1 Gbps (gigabit per second) speed connection to all residents in a 600 mile radius. Provo Utah and Bristol Virginia have undertaken similar initiatives. Here in Maine there is the Connect ME program, a government initiative to provide broadband access to communities across the state.

The Pro’s and Cons of Municipal Broadband Networks.

Despite many town’s desires to establish some form of municipal broadband, nineteen states have passed measures which restrict its implementation. So, if there is such a controversy about these networks what are the pros and cons of towns investing in them? Well, opponents of municipal broadband networks often cite the following problems and risks:

  • Costly: Municipal broadband networks are expensive. The 6,000 miles of fiber in Chattanooga cost just under 300 million dollars to construct according to a report by CBS News.
  • Government Interference: Often lawmakers express a desire to let larger private firms upgrade the networks as they will, so government does not have to needlessly interfere in the market.
  • Undermine Existing Networks: In an interview with PC magazine an AT&T spokesman expressed concerns over how municipal broadband networks will impact their existing networks. Indeed, other large providers have expressed similar concerns.

Proponents of municipal broadband, however, believe that the benefits to municipal broadband outweigh the costs. Often referring to the following:

  • Business Investment: It is widely held by many, including the FCC that high-speed broadband internet access is very attractive to businesses. Chattanooga’s broadband network, for instance, has brought 400 million dollars in investment to the city, and 6,000 jobs according to the aforementioned CBS report.
  • Healthcare Access: The FCC, and many others, believe broadband internet connections also improve healthcare access. One expert on municipal broadband cited an example of a rural medical professional who, after receiving access, could to easily upload and download things like x-rays, and contact other specialists.
  • Public Services: According to the economist, having access to a high speed network allows for a number of advanced improvements to public services. This includes improved police communication and data analysis; more efficient waste pick-up; minimized power outages; and traffic lights that can respond in real time.
  • Industry Competition: An article in the New York Times discussed how, oftentimes, consumers do not have a choice in broadband providers and are subject to a local monopoly; restricting them to slower service and inflated prices. Municipal broadband networks offer an alternative option and promote industry competition.
  • Bandwidth Demand: As more and more broadband intensive services become demanded, the demand for high-speed internet will increase, and such networks will become more and more of a necessity.

As municipal broadband networks become a more prominent fixture in our national debate we hope that this entry will have helped inform you on the issue.










2 Comments for The Municipal Broadband Debate: Should Towns Build Fiber Networks?

  1. An updated an interactive version of our Community Broadband map is available here: http://MuniNetworks.org/communitymap

    Glad to see you putting both sides of this debate forward. We continue to think this decision is best made on a case-by-case basis by local communities themselves. Each situation varies greatly, so we strongly oppose any one-size-fits-all state regulation to limit local authority.

    • Trevor Jones says:

      Chris, thanks for the updated map link! In general, GWI supports municipal networks where local officials feel it is important to their economic plan, but we did feel it was important to present a balanced overview for our readers.

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