News: Barriers to Community Broadband Struck Down

On February 26 in a groundbreaking announcement, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) agreed in a 3 – 2 vote to recognize the rights of two southern US cities (Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina) to build their own publicly owned high-speed Internet networks in areas where incumbents had refused to invest in modern infrastructure to support high-speed broadband connectivity. 

This is a common issue across the United States of America. Speaking as a Brit looking in, we on the other side of the pond think that the US must have gigabit speeds to every house. However, the truth is that more than 75% of US citizens have little or no access even to speeds that we in the UK consider slow. The first broadside was announced almost a year ago in a speech by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who said that the current market is “lacking” and then called for “more competitive choices” to give people better services. He also stated that for those who wanted higher Internet speeds, “there is simply no competitive choice…three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice for the essential infrastructure for twenty-first century economics and democracy.”

After the announcement, Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said that “cable companies lost their bet that millions spent on lobbying to stifle competition was a wiser investment than extending high-quality internet to our nation’s entrepreneurs, students and rural families” and that “preventing big Internet providers from unfairly discriminating against content online is a victory, but allowing communities to be the owners and stewards of their own broadband networks is a watershed moment that will serve as a check against the worst abuses of the cable monopoly for decades to come.”

What exactly does this decision mean in real terms? If you look at this map from the Muninetworks organization (an NfP that provides resources to those communities that wish to build their own networks), it shows that there are currently nineteen states that have legislation that actively places barriers to community-based broadband networks. This ruling will allow cities that wish to build their own networks to challenge those laws, fostering more choice and increasing the competitiveness of local businesses via access to fast, stable, and inexpensive broadband Internet. Not only that, but it has been proven that access to fast broadband can create jobs in previously depressed areas. For example, a collaborative effort in Georgia between five towns has been credited with bringing more than 6,000 new jobs to that region, and Springfield, Missouri convinced Expedia to move there. This is at a time when some of the big pan-US telcos have increased prices for their consumers. The fact is, increased competition is good for business and good for consumers, and it will lead to better growth in those access-starved areas.

I think that the Third-World Internet nation of the US will finally be joining the First World where ubiquitous network access is required for cloud computing to succeed.

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