President Obama glad-handed some network engineers in Cedar Falls, Iowa today. No, it was not a campaign stop. (He's done running for president.) The commander-in-chief's visit to the local utility office of Iowa's first gigabit city is a mission statement: America needs more internet service providers that aren't called Comcast.
Oh, thank God. This mission is both valiant and practical. One in three Americans have no choice when it comes to picking an internet service provider. Meanwhile, the vast majority of American internet users are saddled with slow speeds, crippling data caps, absurdly awful customer service, and other related bullshit. Thank God the president is finally using his presidential powers to do something about it.
This community-based broadband plan isn't a new initiative by any means—at least not for some local governments and startup ISPs around the country. It's also not the beginning of a government-run internet—despite what some dumb misleading headlines might say. It is something that would benefit millions.
The mission to create more competition between broadband providers and better internet at a lower price to the end user has been underway for years. It just got a really, really nice boost from the White House, a boost that President Obama will talk more about at the State of the Union on January 20. The White House has already released a 37-page long report on Community-Based Broadband Solutions that explains why the initiative is so important now. (Executive summary: America's internet is too slow, too expensive, too unreliable, and too inaccessible in rural areas.)
Encouragingly, the White House report includes 14 pages listing all of the municipalities that already have their own broadband networks. That's a lot of towns who have taken the internet into their own hands! Even more encouragingly, the president plans is making moves to help that list become much longer. The report's "Promoting Broadband that Works" section explains:
Laws in 19 states—some specifically written by special interests trying to stifle new competitors—have held back broadband access and, with it, economic opportunity. Today President Obama is announcing a new effort to support local choice in broadband, formally opposing measures that limit the range of options to available to communities to spur expanded local broadband infrastructure, including ownership of networks.
Well, it's about damn time. The report goes on to list how the president will encourage the Federal Communications Commission to get on board (even more) with this mission and host a summit for mayors and county commissioners around the country about community broadband. Finally, support from the Department of Commerce as well as the Department of Agriculture will provide more funding for municipal broadband initiatives. That's great news for you and me—and everyone we know, probably.
The really fun thing about this plan to boost internet competition is that there's proof-of-concept. In fact, as the 14-pages of examples prove, many municipalities across the country are already enjoying life without Comcast or Time Warner or other telecom giants. Some of them are also enjoying beautifully fast internet. If you thought Google was the only one offering gigabit internet at affordable prices, you need to go to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
(Full disclosure: I am a proud Tennessean who can't wait for my next trip home, when I will go to Chattanooga just to use the internet.)
Chattanooga has long been the poster child of municipal internet success. Nearly five years ago, the city-owned utility EPB announced that it would build and operate an ultra-fast gigabit internet service. This was nearly a year before Google even announced where it was going to try a similar effort that became Google Fiber. At the time, gigabit internet was about 200 times faster than the average internet connection in the United States.
Fast forward to last year, and Chattanooga—a.k.a Gig City—is a thriving technology hub. While initial estimates were as high as $350, the city's managed to offer its gigabit, fiber-optic internet service for less than $70 a month. (As a point of comparison, I pay $70 a month for Time Warner Cable service in New York City that's supposed to be "up to 50Mbps" though it's almost always much less than that.) The ultra-fast, taxpayer-owned internet doesn't just benefit the average citizen, though. It also attracted loads of startups to the otherwise very affordable and beautiful city.
"It created a catalytic moment here," Sheldon Grizzle, the founder of the local startup accelerator the Company Lab, told The New York Times in 2014. "The Gig allowed us to attract capital and talent into this community that never would have been here otherwise." Around the same time, Chattanooga mayor Andy Berke similarly told the paper, "We don't need to be the next Silicon Valley. That's not who we're going to be, and we shouldn't try to be that. But we are making our own place in the innovation economy."
This is not the beginning of the government-run internet era. Sure, Obama celebrates the many successful municipal internet projects around the country. Chattanooga got its own section in the White House report. The president's plan to lift restrictions that hinder competition in the broadband industry will surely benefit the burgeoning class of private startup ISPs as well.
Whether they're startups or not, small ISPs have a hard time competing against the near monopolistic forces of Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Put simply, these companies just don't have a level playing field. Despite the fact that the fiber-optic infrastructure is there in many American cities, big telecom lobbyists work hard to maintain control over that infrastructure. So if a company wants to offer fast internet, it will probably have to find its own pipes to run it through.
This is a problem for everyone. It's not cheap or easy to lay fiber. It's actually insanely expensive. However, some companies have found a way. Ting, the company best known for crazy cheap cell phone bills, started consolidating access to high-speed fiber optic networks in order to offer gigabit internet at affordable prices. The first city to enjoy the service will be the Comcast-dominated Charlottesville, Virginia. Ting recently announced that the Comcast-dominated Westminster, Maryland will be second.
Meanwhile, some individuals who are sick of being pushed around by big telecom are taking things into their own hands. Two brothers in New York City, for instance, built their own ISP on the rooftop of a grocery store. Now, their startup ISP Brooklyn Fiber provides cheap internet access to more than 100 business in and around Red Hook. Their coverage area is small and speeds aren't yet at the gigabit level. But as Motherboard's Jason Koebler explained recently:
20 mbps on Brooklyn Fiber is like flying above the same highway in a helicopter. No roads, no bumper-to-bumper, no traffic jams.
Those figurative delays with the telecoms aren't because there is a bigger pool of customers using the same bandwidth, but instead because of self-imposed regulations larger providers place on high-bandwidth activity, like streaming a video on YouTube or Netflix.
Being free of Comcast's death grip has its advantages. You pay less for better service, and a lot of startup ISPs like Brooklyn Fiber will certainly enjoy a more level playing field. Meanwhile, the majority of Americans who absolutely hate Comcast and Time Warner Cable will enjoy the freedom to choose. And some pretty appealing choices are popping up through startup ISPs.
The reasons for embracing Obama's plan to increase competition amongst ISPs are many. Sure, it's long overdue and clearly a path towards faster connections at lower prices. But it's also part of a broader push to ensure that the internet continues to drive commerce and innovation in the same way it has since its inception.
With the FCC poised to decide on new rules for net neutrality next month, the nation is at a crossroads. Down one path, there's the peril of continuing to let companies like Comcast control our access to information. Down the other, there's the promise of providing better internet access to all citizens. That promise is already alive in places like Chattanooga and Cedar Falls. Let's make it a nationwide thing. Liberty and justice and bandwidth for all.
Update: Obama said some pretty cool stuff during his Cedar Falls visit, by the way:
Images via Gizmodo / Getty / Flickr
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