As the importance of high-speed broadband Internet increases in everyday life and business, people are starting to look beyond their private Internet service providers and turning to city governments for faster and less expensive alternatives. Government-sponsored broadband Internet is not a new concept, and the number of cities adapting the service only grows with each passing year.

“The digital economy depends on high-speed connections to the Internet,” according to Christopher Mitchell in a 2012 Planetizen report. “And…communities with fast, affordable, and reliable networks will both attract and cultivate jobs; those without robust connections may suffer the same fate as those missed by railroads, electricity, and highways.”

If experts were supporting government-provided broadband in individual cities two years ago, why have we not seen more city-specific networks across the nation? Having municipal governments provide broadband Internet citywide is not only convenient for citizens and local businesses. It provides tangible value as a driver of growth and innovation, which can help a city prosper and improve quality of life. This is especially important in low population cities where service may not be comparable or accessible for residents. More than 130 cities and towns have built their own broadband networks, and more are joining those connected communities every year.

At the same time, several national ISPs have successfully gotten laws passed that ban or restrict municipalities from offering Internet to residents. These bans have startled cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina into action: both are home to municipal Internet networks. They have petitioned the FCC to act on behalf of small towns and providers and prevent national ISPs from strong-arming towns into single-provider situations. Chattanooga and Wilson believe the municipality bans create an unfair advantage that favors national providers and harms the cities’ local economies.

The Effort Behind Municipal-Owned Internet Service

If city governments plan to offer another option for broadband Internet – free, low-cost, or otherwise – they must first invest the time and money it takes to make that service a reality. City governments may work out deals with private Internet service providers to use the infrastructure already in place, which could save on the cost of having to build all new infrastructure, such as laying fiber-optic lines throughout the city like Chattanooga, Tennessee chose to do.

Planetizen cites one example wherein securing a broadband link to a site in rural Chatham County would be a multi-million dollar project, and that’s just one site. Extrapolate those numbers citywide, including building the network infrastructure and servers powerful enough to host so many Internet connections, and the costs for some cities can be insurmountable.

Monticello, a suburb of Minneapolis with about 10,000 residents, made plans to lay its own fiber-optic lines in 2009. A private ISP contested the project in court, but the city had already issued $26 million in bonds and began working on the project not long after. Five years later, Monticello now has two fiber networks competing in the same space, which guarantees residents Internet options, pricing choices, and the speeds they are looking for in their rural Internet service.

A recent addition to the municipally-owned Internet cities is Boulder, Colorado, which approved a ballot in 2011 authorizing the city to begin laying a fiber-optic broadband network. In 2013, voters approved bond funding to pay for continuing the project. As of June 2014, the city was still designing the network. The final step is for 2014 voters to approve an exemption to the city’s laws that will allow Boulder to actually offer Internet services to residents. In short, this type of project takes several years, potentially nearing a decade, during which time broadband speeds and technology may surpass the original design.

City-Sponsored Broadband Causes a Stir

While municipally provided broadband Internet may be integral for citizens and most businesses, not all businesses stand to benefit. Internet service providers are not always happy when cities decide to partake in mass telecommunications. At the moment, private ISPs face little competition, so they can offer slower speeds at higher prices, and people pay for it anyway. Municipalities, on the other hand, typically have lower costs and are not after short-term gains as private entities are.

So when city governments step in with initiatives to provide broadband Internet citywide, this can thwart an ISP’s plans, driving down prices and even causing some customers to leave entirely. As a result, ISPs teamed up with lobbyists to pass laws that either hinder or prevent cities from offering broadband services. As of February 2014, lobbyists successfully limited public Internet service in 20 states. Consumer advocacy has kept that number from going higher.

The fear of expensive legal battles against national ISPs, along with high initial costs and time investment, are part of the reason why more cities haven’t provided their own broadband access to citizens yet.

Why You Should Care About City-Sponsored Broadband

Citizens stand to benefit in a number of ways if their governments end up providing broadband Internet to the community. For starters, this could mean a cheaper or even free alternative to the services from private ISPs, and everyone wants a lower Internet bill. In addition, city-provided broadband could also mean faster connections at these lower prices due to new and better infrastructure or more powerful servers.

Finally, in a local or national crisis, governments are generally the first to get back online before private companies. So in the event of a crisis, you may have access to your municipally-provided Internet before your typical ISP’s network, which can help you understand the situation and communicate with loved ones and services faster.

If municipal governments and citywide providers can overcome costs and limitations, the benefits to a city are very real. They include millions of dollars in savings, jobs and population growth, and a community that is more connected and enjoys a higher quality of life. High-speed local Internet access may even make people smarter. As this concept becomes a reality in more cities, the face of broadband Internet connections with the rest of the world is sure to change tremendously in the coming decades.

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Photo: Flickr/Lacrymosa