Communications services and technological innovations should be accessible and affordable to all because of the implications they have for sustained economic development. The three elements supporting the success of technology in cities are broadband1 (commonly understood as high-speed Internet) access, broadband adoption (understanding how it can be used) and the effective application of it. Access to broadband makes a significant contribution to the economy. In 2009, two Harvard Business School researchers estimated that American jobs related to the internet contributed approximately $300 billion of economic activity to the United States’ Gross Domestic Product.2 In addition to its national impact, broadband also helps promote local economic development, improves environmental sustainability, provides efficiencies in a variety of local government services, enhances quality of life factors through improvements to public health and public safety and increases educational opportunities for millions of Americans. But having access to broadband without the tools to efficiently use it can limit a local government’s ability to successfully govern, provide services and engage with constituents.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in 2011 the United States ranked 15th among 30 developed and developing nations in deploying broadband services.3 This is a huge departure from where this country stood in the 1990s, when it was one of the leaders in providing broadband access.
One of the biggest challenges with broadband access in the United States is that it is not universally available in all parts of the country. Providing service to less populated areas can prove to be unprofitable for the private sector, making access uneven and spotty. “The big carriers have stopped investing in next-generation networks,4 leaving communities with few options but to consider their own investments,” says Christopher Mitchell, Director of Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Where private telecommunications providers are not able to address demands for access, the role of community or municipal broadband networks can meet middle- and last-mile needs to provide broadband to pockets of the population that do not have it. Ultimately, the goal of broadband access is to allow people to take advantage of its potential to improve the user’s experience, whether it’s for business development, improved healthcare, education or recreation.
Widespread broadband access is a trend the nation is rapidly moving towards, and successfully implementing municipal networks can provide a solution to some of the challenges associated with providing high speed internet access. While cities have their own set of obstacles on the local broadband network front, ranging from state preemption to the lack of effective planning and business models to sustain municipal broadband services, municipal networks are still a viable consideration cities can explore.
Danville, Va. and Chattanooga, Tenn. have both built fiber optic networks5 and ensured that they had staying power. Much thought, planning and stakeholder input went into the creation of a solid business plan, which was the first step in determining if municipal networks were truly a viable option.
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