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The universal availability of high speed internet service (broadband) is a key goal for the country, the states, and the FCC. As the National Broadband Plan points out,
Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life. It is enabling entire new industries and unlocking vast new possibilities for existing ones. It is changing how we educate children, deliver health care, manage energy, ensure public safety, engage government, and access, organize and disseminate knowledge.1
Broadband penetration and speeds are increasing in some parts of the country, particularly in those areas where rural local exchange companies and cooperatives have brought broadband to their customers, but deployment continues to fall short of expectations in other, hard to serve areas, where infrastructure costs are high, the presence of alternative wireline and wireless broadband network providers may be or is limited, and actual or anticipated sales (e.g., broadband "take rates") may not generate the profit margin necessary to support the introduction or upgrade of broadband services or commercial market entry by broadband competitors. This has resulted in gaps between the broadband "haves" in generally well-served urban communities and the "have-nots" in unserved areas.
Municipal broadband could be one tool for ensuring the universal availability of broadband to all citizens. These networks generally fall into four primary categories:
â€¢ Municipality-owned and managed networks (city networks) that provide retail service directly to citizens;
â€¢ Utility networks, generally operated by the municipal electric company, that sell broadband and/or telecommunications services to their own customers using the same model as their electric or other utility service; and
â€¢ Public-private partnerships, where a municipality contracts with a private concern to provide broadband services to its residents using infrastructure provided by the municipality.
â€¢ Open access (wholesale) networks, where the city provides the infrastructure and offers it to multiple suppliers to provide retail service.
Today, 143 municipal networks throughout the country offer (primarily) fiber-based, high speed broadband service, with more in the planning stage. When these networks are successful, they increase economic development in previously unserved areas and bring citizens services that would otherwise be unavailable. When they fail, the costs are borne by tax payers. Managed appropriately, and with the proper level of state oversight, these municipal systems
1 Federal Communications Commission, Connecting America, The National Broadband Plan, (Washington, DC, March 17, 2010) p. xi, available at http://www.fcc.gov/national-broadband-plan
2 Under certain conditions, gaps in coverage can also be observed in selected segments of urban areas that are or can otherwise be served by physical broadband access networks could become broadband carriers of last resort in areas that will not or cannot be adequately served by commercial wireline and/or wireless broadband service providers.
Of course, not all municipal networks have been successful. A number have failed, either from poor management or bad business planning, leaving their municipal owners with stranded assets and high costs that must be borne by citizens. These failed networks have encouraged the opponents of municipal broadband to call for strong strictures on their deployment, including limiting the areas which these systems can serve.
Proponents of municipal broadband offer four primary arguments to support their position.
1. Municipalities provide broadband as a public service and, therefore, offer a more customer-focused experience than competitive suppliers which must put shareholder value above customer wishes.
2. Municipalities deploy networks in unserved and underserved areas.
3. Municipal networks increase both public and private investment by building broadband infrastructure and creating new business opportunities.
4. Municipal networks add to rather than eliminate competition.
Opponents of municipal broadband argue that
1. Government-owned projects focus too much on public service goals and not enough on good business practices.
2. Municipal networks are often unprofitable and result in increased costs and stranded assets that must be paid for through higher taxes and assessments.
3. Municipal service providers do not close gaps in broadband service, but, like competitive suppliers, provide service only to those areas where it is profitable to do so.
4. Municipal service providers serve primarily within the city limits and do not serve customers on farms or outside the city limits. This leaves the incumbent telephone companies with a disproportionate share of the higher cost customers.
Twenty-three states have addressed the question of municipal broadband. Of these, four states, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, and Texas, prohibit municipal broadband installations completely, and one, Washington, allows municipalities to build only wholesale infrastructure rather than create retail networks. The other 18 states require municipalities to meet specific conditions before they can deploy a network. These conditions range from developing a business plan to ensure the financial success of the network, to proving that a competitive supplier will not build an equivalent network or provide retail broadband access services within the next 14 months.
This paper explores the controversy surrounding municipal broadband through a factual lens. It reviews the statutes controlling municipal telecommunications and broadband projects across the nation, describes the conditions that some see as barriers to system deployment, reviews proposed state legislation limiting or expanding the reach of municipal systems. The paper also provides suggestions for understanding and addressing the competing points of view about the importance and value of municipally developed projects. The paper also provides an overview of the legal issues surrounding the municipal broadband debate, including two petitions currently pending at the FCC requesting that the agency use its authority under Section 706 of the federal Telecommunications Act to eliminate what the petitioners see as onerous conditions on the expansion of their existing municipal networks.
States and municipalities have chosen different regulatory and business models for municipal broadband. Some have lead to success, while others have resulted in costly failures. Those municipal networks that have succeeded have brought service to areas that would otherwise have remained unserved, benefiting both their direct constituents and, ultimately, the country as a whole. Clearly, then, these successful networks are "in the public interest" and the lessons they teach should drive future legislation and regulation.
There is no simple formula for deciding whether a municipal broadband network deployment will succeed or fail, but the right conditions on these installations may reduce the chance of those failures or mitigate them when they occur. These conditions include developing a business case that addresses both the risks and promises of municipal service; ensuring community support through presentations, referendums, and a firm understanding of the community's needs, and selecting the correct management model to ensure that projections meet reality. In addition, municipalities should focus first on bringing service to unserved and underserved areas.
Municipal broadband may help to meet the critical goal of ensuring that all citizens have access to the digital resources they need to participate fully in the 21st century. The ultimate decision regarding broadband deployment will rest with state legislators. As states wrestle with the questions of broadband expansion, carrier of last resort, and bringing service to unserved and underserved areas, they may want to consider municipal networks as one way of increasing service availability.
This paper is meant as a primer on the question of municipal broadband. It provides an initial look at the way in which the states have addressed this issue legislatively and suggests further avenues for inquiry. The debate over municipal broadband has multiple layers, from assessing the need for municipal participation to questions of subsidies, competition, and regulation. This paper attempts to provide background for understanding those layers.