The digital divide in the U.S. was apparent long before the pandemic forced many of us to go about our usual work/school day from our home computers. ISPs responded by waiving late fees, removing data caps, and opening up hotspots for free, but only temporarily. If you’re lucky enough to have more than one ISP in your area, you could shop around for the best internet package that fits your budget, but that sometimes comes at the cost of mediocre speeds. 5G was supposed to give us more internet options, but so far the actual rollout has been limited and lackluster. If only there was a reasonable solution to treat the internet as a utility and provide reliable, affordable access to everyone in the U.S.—like community broadband.
It’s a great solution, actually, broadband that’s fully or partially managed and operated by a local government. But it’s a solution that has been roadblocked by major ISPs and local laws to prevent cities from building their own community broadband infrastructure; according to Broadband Now, 22 states have roadblocked or totally outlawed community broadband.
Those ISPs don’t want the competition, and yet don’t want to build their own infrastructure in the parts of the U.S. that need it the most. 21.3 million Americans (the actual number could be higher) still don’t have access to affordable and reliable internet, but there are a few cities that have been able to build their own community broadband, like Ammon, Idaho, which is located near Idaho Falls.
According to a study released last week by the Open Technology Institute, Ammon is proof that community broadband not only works but if we already had it nation-wide we’d probably be weathering this pandemic much better, especially when it comes to distance learning. Compared to the cost of internet services in Europe, Asia, and the rest of North America, Ammon is only one of a handful of cities in the U.S. that has affordable broadband. The report says:
“We find substantial evidence of an affordability crisis in the United States. Based on our dataset, the most affordable average monthly prices are in Asian and European cities. Just three U.S. cities rank in the top half of cities when sorted by average monthly costs. The most affordable U.S. city—Ammon, Idaho—ranks seventh. The overwhelming majority of the U.S. cities in our dataset rank in the bottom half for average monthly costs.”
Additionally, the report found that in the U.S., ISPs are not transparent with consumers, the government, or researchers regarding pricing and speeds, and—surprise—the U.S. market suffers from a lack of competition. Community broadband appears to “offer some of the best value in the United States.”
Ammon approved its own community broadband in 2010 after it realized that its density and location wasn’t an incentive for an ISP to come in and set-up its network. At the time, the city population was just 13,816 residents spread over about 7.27 miles. The cost to an ISP to set up in a city that small wouldn’t be a lot, but the small number of customers that ISP would gain in return makes it not a great investment for ISPs, according to Open Technology Institute. “Normally, costs associated with deploying telecommunication technology, specifically fiber optic cables, are cited by internet service providers large and small as a major prohibitive factor for expanding their networks.”
So, Ammon decided to build its own city-owned and operated open access fiber network, which allowed more ISPs to enter the market and provide better broadband options at competitive prices and speeds. For instance, FyberCom, which is one of the main ISPs on Ammon’s fiber network, offers a 1000 Mbps plan for $10 a month. In contrast, there is no community broadband where I live, so I pay $85 a month for up to 400 Mbps from Spectrum. (I kind of want to move to Ammon now, not gonna lie.) You can see all of the internet plans Ammon offers by going to their website, clicking on My Account, and logging in with the dummy credentials ‘coademo’ for both the username and password.
If this shows anything, it’s that major ISPs don’t want competition so they can charge as much as they want, but they don’t want to incur the costs of building out their own infrastructure, even when federal aide is involved. The things we could do if the goal was to provide internet service with only modest profits for reinvestment.
If you’re curious about the status of community broadband in your state, the Fiber Broadband Association is a good place to start. Maybe you’ll discover that you can actually get community broadband where you live and ditch hidden and high service fees for good. More likely, you’ll have to be the hero who starts this kind of initiative in your area.