When Internet Access is a Public Utility
October 17, 2019 6:17 AM   Subscribe

In some Rust Belt communities, broadband access is provided by the municipal government.
“The private sector is unlikely to solve the significant problems that we see,” Christopher Mitchell, the principal author of the ILSR reports, and the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative for ILSR, said in an interview. When there is no high speed private option available, particularly in rural areas, then municipal broadband may be the only way to go, he said.
posted by hilaryjade (34 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Our city is currently rolling out municipal fiber, starting with the downtown business district and working outward. Our store is going to be one of the first installations. Comcast cable is available but is predictably awful; our connection drops at least once per day for no apparent reason. DSL is available but max tested speed at our location was 384k (so, no.)

The city is delivering 100Mbps for $39/month and 1Gbps for $69/month, residential. We are currently paying $109/month for 25Mbps from Comcast, and that's "The best deal we can give you."

I can't wait.
posted by xedrik at 6:56 AM on October 17, 2019 [17 favorites]


"major telecom companies... laughed at us and said that’s never going to happen"

That was my experience for more than a decade in Vermont.
posted by doctornemo at 7:24 AM on October 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


At a recent all-staff meeting at work, we had a visit from a *very* enthusiastic gentleman from Manitoba who is determined to turn the not-so-thriving metropolis of Winkler, MB into a regional internet hub by building its own data centers and dedicated FTTH network. He seems to view it less as a business enterprise and more as a mission -- as the only way he can save his community from simply wasting away to nothing as jobs and children leave for bigger towns with better connectivity. Which isn't to say he doesn't expect to be able to turn a profit, just that it doesn't seem to be the driving force behind what he's doing.

As soon as they started fibering Winkler, the major telco finally showed up to compete.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:34 AM on October 17, 2019 [19 favorites]


Huh, I can't imagine why the government broke up those big monopolies at the beginning of the 20th century.

Campaign finance reform is the only way we will ever get out from under this government of the corporations, for the corporations, by the corporations.
posted by corvikate at 7:42 AM on October 17, 2019 [7 favorites]


As soon as I saw this FPP I thought of Fairlawn. It's about 5 miles down the road from me. I bowl at Riviera Lanes on Monday nights, and my friend owns the pro shop there. FairlawnGig has been great for everyone I know who uses it. Before that service was absolutely terrible. Personally I think we would all benefit from making broadband a public utility.
posted by slogger at 7:52 AM on October 17, 2019 [10 favorites]


Hell, Verizon can't even finish running FIOS fiber inside my city. They made a deal with the city promising to service all the neighborhoods and not just the rich ones but that was almost a decade ago and they still having finished the roll-out.
posted by octothorpe at 7:53 AM on October 17, 2019 [8 favorites]


jacquilynne: At a recent all-staff meeting at work, we had a visit from a *very* enthusiastic gentleman from Manitoba who is determined to turn the not-so-thriving metropolis of Winkler, MB into a regional internet hub by building its own data centers and dedicated FTTH network. He seems to view it less as a business enterprise and more as a mission

Winkler is very Mennonite - but more Mennonite Brethren and not so much Old Order Mennonite, so much more open to technology - which might explain some of the community-barn-raising enthusiasm of the gentleman.
posted by clawsoon at 7:58 AM on October 17, 2019 [5 favorites]


I bet that gentleman also wrote Winkler's very cheerful Wikipedia page:
A recent development is the rise of and competition in the technology industry in Winkler with startup internet service provider Valley Fiber[11] and Bell MTS[12] rolling out fiber optic internet solutions. This makes Winkler a sort of silicon valley in southern Manitoba.
posted by clawsoon at 8:01 AM on October 17, 2019 [5 favorites]


Winkler is very Mennonite - but more Mennonite Brethren and not so much Old Order Mennonite, so much more open to technology - which might explain some of the community-barn-raising enthusiasm of the gentleman.

That is very interesting and matches well with the details I already know about Valley Fiber.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:09 AM on October 17, 2019


If government never got into the utility business, rural America still wouldn't even have electricity, let alone telephone service. The Rural Utility Service's mandate should be expanded to include broadband internet. And, yes, absolutely the monopolies should be broken up.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:19 AM on October 17, 2019 [17 favorites]


Its amazing how the telecoms go from "ha ha, no we're never putting in fiber fuck off" to "we're totally going to put in fiber" the very instant municipal broadband starts up.

I live in San Antonio, where the city owns the electric company and get lower rates and better service than I did when I was in a place with private electricity. I'd love it if the city rolled out fiber. We're not nearly as badly off as the places in the article, at least broadband is a thing we can buy here even if the rates seem way too high for the service offered, but we could do so much better.

Broadband is as essential to modern life as running water, it needs to be a municipal service offered not for profit.

Of course many states are banning municipal broadband, because protecting corporate profits is more important than people doing better. Right now 25 states, including California of all horrible things, prohibit or significantly impede municipal broadband. Many states passed a ban after a city implemented municipal broadband to keep it from being repeated.
posted by sotonohito at 8:21 AM on October 17, 2019 [11 favorites]


Cough, Starlink.

So, not to be a total muskianfanboi, I'm all for local control of the local infrastructure, but I recall recommending a new home include pre-wired cat-5. That would be just before everyone discovered WiFi. We may be near the cusp of a new cycle of network infrastructure, most realistic build outs would be in the multi-year, many multi-decade, range.

Even if the actual ground station nodes are pricey, a local mesh become much more reasonable, say 20-30 homes per uplink.

Six months ago I would not have made this comment, but 60+ birds are in the sky and functional for testing. That 60 actual satellites.
posted by sammyo at 8:23 AM on October 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


Also, never forget that you, me, and every American has already paid, twice, for universal broadband and fiber to the home. On average we've each paid $2,000 in fees specifically earmarked for deploying broadband everywhere explicitly including rural areas. The telcos have collected over $400 billion in those fees and simply added them to their profit margins rather than spending them to implement broadband.

When you hear the telcos complain about the huge expanse of fiber to the home and why they can't possibly provide it, remember that you've already paid $2,000 for that.

We need a couple of laws, including a federal law overriding all state laws to permit municipal broadband, but we also need a law requiring every telco to provide fiber to the home to every single American in, say, five years, or be broken up and sold at auction. Because we paid for that literally two decades ago and they just stole the money.

Oh, and we're still paying. Those fees are on every bill you pay. But you still aren't getting it.
posted by sotonohito at 8:27 AM on October 17, 2019 [59 favorites]


Out here in ND, we have rural telephone coops that were established when Ma Bell decided that it wasn't worth wiring every farm and small town. We have one centered in our home town that now services almost four counties with phone, cable, and Internet. I enjoy a fiber optic line that speed tests claim is 50 Mbps download. Coops rule.
posted by Ber at 8:29 AM on October 17, 2019 [16 favorites]


Things everyone needs should be public services. Electric, water, sewer, internet, information (libraries), banking, physical and mental health, drugs, dental, optical, police, fire, transit. Probably a few I missed. All that shit should be nationalized. Just take it away from the corporations with the stroke of a pen. "Everyone already paid for it several times over, so we'll just take it now." Fucking corporations. Destroy them.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:13 AM on October 17, 2019 [17 favorites]


I had to hand-draw a coverage map by riding my bike around my whole area, recording addresses, extrapolating landline numbers, and pinging the bellsouth dsl looptest screen, then send the whole mess to my state representative, before bellsouth would even install another cabinet in an area where they already “provided service,” on the grounds there weren't enough prospective customers to justify the cost. Private telecoms are the worst.
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:18 AM on October 17, 2019 [10 favorites]


A bit tangential but related to the rural electrification project... i read Jayber Crow a while back and that is how I found about that whole thing. I couldn’t help but see the similarities to internet access.

It’s an interesting book where it seems the main character is one person but it’s actually about the rural community going through the process of getting electricity over the narrator’s life. Pretty interesting once I caught on. I hadn’t read about it before or even really understood the impact it would have had. I had never really thought about that middle period between “electricity is something you’ve heard about it but not seen ” and “there are sockets everywhere and everything has a cord”.


The US has needed this as a public utility for a long long time and I hope it happens quickly.
posted by affectionateborg at 10:00 AM on October 17, 2019 [8 favorites]


Out here in ND, we have rural telephone coops that were established when Ma Bell decided that it wasn't worth wiring every farm and small town

Ber — Consolidated? I know people who were, well into ‘90s, still serviced by the original RTC lines installed in the ‘30s. They now have faster and cheaper internet than I can even buy in my part of the twin cities.
posted by nathan_teske at 10:26 AM on October 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


sotonohito: Right now 25 states, including California of all horrible things, prohibit or significantly impede municipal broadband. Many states passed a ban after a city implemented municipal broadband to keep it from being repeated.

A link from that link has the FCC Commissioner making a flag-waving First Amendment speech about how regulations on children's television violates free speech and how municipal broadband is a "particularly ominous threat to the First Amendment".

Of all the "particularly ominous" threats to freedom of speech online, municipal broadband strikes me as a "particularly stupid" target. I'm sure there'll be the occasional mayor who tries to pull rank and get back at the neighbour whose trees are dropping leaves over the fence by cutting of their Internet connection, and I'm sure those few cases will be quickly resolved at higher levels of government, in the courts, or in the court of public ridicule.
posted by clawsoon at 10:46 AM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


Thanks for posting this. I watch this sort of thing with great interest, as I live in sort of a broadband liminal zone - AT&T fiber is on my road - and I have it - but a very short drive further down or onto the side roads puts me back into HughesNet territory. Our state has a rural broadband initiative, which is something. And there's certainly precedent (e.g., the Chattanooga success story mentioned above). One would think that the same spirit behind the TVA wiring everyone for electricity would have taken hold with internet access as well at some point.

As it happens, I have an easement across part of my property still held by the TVA - some old poles and de-energized lines. I e-mailed them about it awhile back when I was trying to figure out who owned them. A guy got back to me within 24 hours, and included an actual scanned image of the grant, dated to 1920. So industrial infrastructure and it's longevity has been on my mind quite a bit these days.
posted by jquinby at 11:15 AM on October 17, 2019 [3 favorites]


East Chicago, Indiana took a somewhat divergent approach in building a municipal fiber network for businesses only. (This may have something to do with the city's longstanding "government by and for private industry" ethos.)
posted by Not A Thing at 11:25 AM on October 17, 2019


nathan_teske, it's NCC. I used to work at what was West Publishing and they had an Internet pipe as wide as storm sewer. This is darn near as fast.
posted by Ber at 11:43 AM on October 17, 2019


The segment on Chattanooga, TN's success was terrific.

Chattanooga resident here. It's fucking awesome.
posted by AdamCSnider at 1:08 PM on October 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


sotonohito, I'd reread that site's california writeup, it says that california should be taken off the list as of a 2018 law change, but hasn't actually done so for some reason.
posted by gryftir at 5:25 PM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


I used to work for an ISP in NE PA. One of their early businesses was a telephone company as the town got started late and Bell was not out there as there was nothing there. And even they were slow to the cable internet growth. Hell at one point they sold one way cable. You had a phone modem for upload, cable for download.

hell I now live in Alexandria VA and you'd think that FIOS would be every where in this area so close to DC. Nope.

I've dreamt of moving to places with municipal broadband, like Bristol TN/VA
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 7:22 PM on October 17, 2019


Hi, I've lived in Bristol TN with municipal fiber! :) $100 for 1Gb/100Mb.

However, I currently live 30 miles from there with no internet except for satellite. The last time I talked with an ISP they wanted me to spend $20k to lay a mile of fiber.
posted by joeyh at 7:10 AM on October 18, 2019


when we discuss this issue in my classes, I show the students pictures of our local utilities building in the 1930s that clearly states that it is Water, Power and Ice - before widespread refrigerator ownership, ice for iceboxes was a public health issue, so the city made sure it was provided at low cost.

It completely boggles their mind that you can even buy internet service from someone other than a corporation. Of course, they are young college students, so the very concept of having to pay for internet service is beyond them - parents and schools have always provided it to them...
posted by jkosmicki at 7:25 AM on October 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


It should be allowed to buy internet service from ... anyone with internet service. If the contracts that prohibit that did not exist, the US would have widespread rural broadband. It would be a hacked together mess of point to point wifi links, buried and badly strung ethernet cables, etc, but it would mostly work. See Cuba, see rural phone coops that ran voice over barbed wire fences.
posted by joeyh at 7:43 AM on October 18, 2019 [2 favorites]


Oh, hey, I do this stuff for a living! I actually know Chris, and he's a cool dude doing cool work. Give his podcast a listen if you find this intriguing. ILSR interviews a lot of the small communities that have pulled together their own networks and the challenges they have to overcome (it can be surprisingly hard, when you are a public utility company that has never had to market electrical service, to start marketing broadband and get the uptake rate you need to be viable long-term - not to mention all the political sabotage from state governments and big telecom).

Some additional items of interest, in no particular order:
  • Community Networks, Chris's project within ILSR, their municipal broadband map, which tracks public broadband investments and the states that preempt them in some way, and the Broadband Bits podcast
  • The National Digital Inclusion Alliance is also a good resource if you're worried about broadband access. They produce lots of great tools for community groups and institutions to tackle all of the reasons someone might not have or be able to use broadband.
  • The Pew Charitable Trusts' broadband research has been focused lately on what states are doing, and they have a very cool new tool to figure out how many states are doing things, or what broadband things your state is doing.
  • Finally, if you need a new topic for your regular phone calls and letters to your congressional delegation, you can ask them to support the Digital Equity Act (S. 1167 in the Senate and H.R. 4486 in the House). You can also ask them to support the Community Broadband Act (H.R. 2785, no Senate companion), which would override state preemption of municipal broadband. Senator Booker has led it in the Senate in past sessions, but he's a little busy at the moment, so it's ripe for someone to lead!
posted by bowtiesarecool at 11:54 AM on October 18, 2019 [10 favorites]


Keys Energy retrofitted all electric meters to talk to their central computer ten years ago, so no more meter readers for your bills. The retrofit also included a fiber optic broadband connection, with the intent to be a municipal internet provider.

AT&T and COMCAST went out of their minds over this development. They managed to fight it all the way to the State Supreme Court, whence they obtained an injunction against it.

So we literally have all the infrastructure in place for every house and business, ready to go with the flip of a switch, and we can't have it. This is disheartening, since both providers have miserable uptime ratings, and although we have both at work, payroll processing is delayed at least once a month by outages.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 3:49 AM on October 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


halfbuckaroo: AT&T and COMCAST went out of their minds over this development. They managed to fight it all the way to the State Supreme Court, whence they obtained an injunction against it.

That is stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. It's the sign of a broken system. I suspect it's a small preview of the stupidity that will happen when the U.S. tries to implement single-payer healthcare.
posted by clawsoon at 5:46 AM on October 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


There are an almost shocking number of electric utilities and municipalities that laid in a bunch of fiber in the early aughts with the purpose of eventually providing ISP service. The vast majority of it is either entirely unused or is used only for remote meter reading or ITS backhaul. In most cases where it did end up being used, service was limited to schools and, in a few cases, businesses.

There was surprisingly little overt influence applied at the time. It was almost all quiet nudges and whispered doubts about financial sustainability, all well out of the public eye. Only later did the overt propaganda and purchasing of state laws become part of the playbook.
posted by wierdo at 3:26 PM on October 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


> before widespread refrigerator ownership, ice for iceboxes was a public health issue, so the city made sure it was provided at low cost.

Municipal food markets also used to be quite common for similar reasons. People can debate what services are best provided publicly or privately or by a mix of both, but most arguments of the form "the idea of government providing Service X is simply absurd" are pretty ahistorical.
posted by smelendez at 4:42 PM on October 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


It should be noted that rural electric cooperatives are in the middle of a somewhat coordinated push to connect (and service) their entire customer base, residential, commercial, or institutional, over the next few years. It's only sightly more organized than the rural/coop telcos' collective deployment of DSL in the aughts, which got low latency, if not terribly high speed, connections to a lot more rural users than is commonly acknowledged, often in areas where party lines were still in use.

There are also many rural telcos that completed universal fiber projects in their various service areas between 2005 and 2015, at least among the ones that didn't get bought by CenturyLink. Certainly not all of them, but a substantial portion. It seems that willingness to take on universal fiber deployments is inversely related to the size of the company making the plans. Too bad nobody with a sufficiently wide audience will point out the absurdity of the largest corporations in America claiming that it is impossible to afford universal broadband, much less fiber optic service to every home while their paid shills and hangers on loudly insist that low population density makes their claims reasonable, despite far more capital constrained entities seeming to have no trouble fulfilling a promise of universal service, often in the very rural places held up by the corporate apologists as the reason we can't have universal broadband at a reasonable cost.
posted by wierdo at 10:23 PM on October 19, 2019 [3 favorites]


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