Can municipal broadband networks bridge the digital divide?

Local governments may be able to provide better Internet access than telecommunications companies.

18% of students do not have reliable high-speed internet at home. President Joseph R. Biden proposes to bridge the digital divide that exists for poor and rural Americans by funding municipal broadband networks across the United States to allow every American to connect to the high-speed Internet.

The White House has announced plans to allocate $ 65 billion from the president’s bipartisan infrastructure framework to fund broadband to lower prices and increase internet speeds across America. Instead of subsidizing for-profit telecommunications companies, President Biden is prioritizing municipal broadband networks that could better support underserved communities. Municipal broadband networks provide internet services, similar to for-profit companies such as Verizon, but are controlled by local governments, meaning there is often less pressure to make money and more money. incentives to serve hard-to-reach people.

Some Republicans have suggested that broadband should be excluded from any public infrastructure proposal because it is not similar to conventional infrastructure spending, such as building roads or bridges. US Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), For example, argued that getting all Americans online is not a valid goal if it increases the national debt.

Four Republican Senators, led by US Senator Shelley Moore Capito (RW.Va.), have proposed a significant increase in broadband funding, demonstrating the willingness of some Republicans to extend Internet access to more Americans.

But lawmakers disagree on how to allocate money to increase broadband access. Republicans prefer to subsidize existing for-profit networks, while Democrats prefer to expand municipal broadband networks.

It is difficult to encourage large telecommunications companies to expand into poor or rural areas. Historically, the government has had to provide subsidies to extend broadband to rural communities. Even the president of the broadband industry’s leading trade association recognized that municipal broadband networks provide better service to poor or rural communities because municipalities are less concerned with maximizing profits.

However, municipal broadband networks are not just for unprofitable rural areas.

The city government of Chattanooga, Tennessee operates a municipal broadband network that makes high-speed Internet available to all 180,000 residents and receives high marks for Internet speed, value and reliability . Since the creation of the network, Internet prices have never increased. During the pandemic, the government provided free broadband access to 30,000 children with no data limits.

The government plans to offer 10 years of free broadband access to low-income households, which is only possible because the government’s broadband network reaches the entire city. For-profit companies cannot offer comparable offers because expanding the business networks to every household is not profitable.

Not all municipal broadband expansions have been successful. Many municipal broadband networks fail due to high costs. During the pandemic, state and local government budgets plummeted and many cities reduced their budgets to account for declining tax revenues.

Broadband infrastructure projects force municipalities into debt due to huge upfront costs, and unsuccessful projects often result in costly litigation and unreliable service. A recent study, funded by the broadband industry’s leading trade association, found that because private companies tend to spend more efficiently than local governments on broadband infrastructure, subsidize private companies instead. municipalities can be more profitable.

The broadband industry trade association has spoken out against allowing municipal broadband networks in most situations, and 17 states prohibit municipalities from providing broadband access completely. Earlier this year, U.S. Representative Billy Long (R-Mo.) Proposed a bill that would ban all municipal broadband networks across the country.

Funding for municipal broadband networks, however, is gaining bipartisan support.

Arkansas Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson recently signed a bill allowing local state governments to build municipal broadband networks if the municipality partners with experienced broadband providers. US Representative Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) Introduced a bill that would remove all barriers to local governments creating municipal broadband networks.

Proponents of municipal broadband networks argue that broadband internet is a public service, not a luxury.

Many digital advocates see Chattanooga’s municipal broadband network as a success. Funded by both a substantial loan and a federal grant, the city’s network has reached more than 120,000 subscribers, more than four times the number of customers required for service to reach long-term equilibrium. The project has created nearly 10,000 jobs and delivered $ 2.6 billion in “community benefits” over the past decade. Improved internet service allowed the city to rebrand itself as an “innovation hub,” leading some New York and San Francisco-based startups to relocate to Chattanooga.

Today, Chattanooga is a leading city for remote working, and due to its successful municipal broadband network, one of its neighbors, Knoxville, has approved the development of its own municipal broadband network in part. to prevent businesses from leaving town. But the future of municipal broadband access depends on the outcome of President Biden’s proposal.

About Christopher Easley

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