The time has come for “Municipal Broadband”

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Griffin Perrault, Contributing Writer

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) secured a narrow 3-2 repeal of net neutrality rules in December 2017, which barred telecommunications companies from, among other things, providing so-called “fast lanes” to websites who pay additional fees. The rules were officially scrapped in June, and repercussions are already apparent. Last week, “The Huffington Post” reported that the Santa Clara County Fire Department, one of the leading departments in the fight against the Mendocino Complex fire raging through California, is joining a lawsuit with 22 other states to restore the Obama-era policies after the department’s throttled speeds impeded their response to the 400,000-acre fire.

This is, of course, exactly the type of behavior expected of Verizon in a post-net neutrality America. The telecom giant’s Director of Communications Rich Young stated plainly in a press release last year that the company is “very encouraged by Chairman [Ajit] Pai’s announcement … that the FCC will move forward … to restore the successful light-touch regulatory framework for internet services.”

He also added that while the “outdated approach” of the previous administration’s net neutrality rules was “unnecessary and out of step with today’s dynamic and competitive internet … now, the FCC appears poised for a much-needed return to the approach that fostered so many years of internet openness and innovation.”

The corporate-led push for repeal of net neutrality is the latest of a series of transgressions by telecom companies against the nation’s consumer base. In an industry rife with irksome hidden fees, notoriously unhelpful customer service systems, and generally unreliable data networks, it is difficult to imagine a world where tolerable and consistent internet service is universally provided.

That is, unless you live in such metropolitan centers as Chattanooga, Tenn., Cedar Falls, Iowa, or Seattle. In these cities, internet and phone service are provided as a public good through a tax-fed internet service known to most as “municipal broadband.” This municipal model is best exemplified in the case of Chattanooga: through the public service, the city can offer speeds up to 200 times the national average, resulting in its passing 90,000 subscribers last year out of a total population of 177,571 (a market share of 50.6 percent). But Chattanooga is just one of hundreds of examples across the United States of a successful muni-broadband system, with more cropping up each day. If competition and the forces of the free market are of concern, it should also be noted that muni-wifi has been shown to force down prices of local private competitors and increase competition. This is a much needed impetus for better prices in a country where 50 million homes are within proximity of only one service provider.

To quote net neutrality activist and Harvard Professor Susan Crawford, “American cities need fast, cheap, ubiquitous, open fiber networks, and every city has the tools at its disposal to get these networks built … If you’re furious about your cable bill and worried about net neutrality, go tell city hall.” I certainly will. And you should too.

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