Does Competition Lead to Better Internet Service?

A recent survey completed by the city of Fredericksburg, Va., shows that residents are increasingly reliant on Internet connections for surfing the Web and supporting smart home tech.

by Cathy Jett, The Free Lance-Star / August 22, 2018
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Fredericksburg, Va., residents want broadband that is fast, reliable and affordable. City officials say more competition among Internet-access providers is the best way to make that happen.

The city conducted an online survey between April 16 and July 1 as a step toward its goal of having the fastest broadband of any city in Virginia. It got 214 responses from residents and 54 from businesses.

“Citizens and businesses are satisfied, but I wouldn’t say they’re overwhelmed by the broadband service in the city,” Suzanne Tills, the city’s chief information officer and director of information technology, told city council during its Aug. 14 work session. “Competition would certainly improve price and speed if we could bring more providers into our community.”

The survey was put together with input from city staff and the University of Mary Washington’s Center for Economic Development. Localities from large cities to rural counties are looking at ways to improve broadband in their communities because it has become essential in education, workforce training and, for business especially, in keeping a competitive edge.

Broadband is one of the five criteria that companies look at when searching for a location, according to Angela Freeman, the city’s business development manager. It is increasingly important for residents as well because of the rise of smart appliances and devices such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home.

While the survey found that the most common ways for residents to connect to the internet are, not surprisingly, through the use of personal computers, tablets, smartphones and smart TVs, Tills said, 47 reported they were using it for the internet of things: appliances, vehicles and electronic systems that use the internet to access and exchange data.

In addition, 21 said they were using it for webcams, 16 said they were using it for alarm systems, 10 said for other uses and six for facility automation.

The survey showed that residents average paying their internet provider $71.20 a month for a download speed of 101.39 mbps. Businesses pay an average of $124.50 for 54.84 mbps. Four people who took the poll said that they couldn’t afford internet access, Tills said.

Residents said that they mainly access the internet from their home, although 15 percent said they go online using their smartphone or at a public library, restaurant, work, or relative or friend’s house. Only about 4 percent of businesses said they use a public library. The rest of the time they use the internet connection at work.

In Fredericksburg, free public access is available at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library branch, 1201 Caroline St.; and the Dorothy Hart Community Center, 408 Canal St.

Federal and state laws governing broadband and related technologies limit localities’ ability to regulate and facilitate them, said Assistant City Attorney Rob Eckstrom, but the city has been able to institute some changes. These include streamlining the approval process for “small cells,” equipment located in public rights-of-way that add additional wireless bandwidth to existing tower networks.

In addition, the city has instituted a “one dig” goal of installing conduit for more than one reason whenever a city street has to be ripped up. When the city replaces some of the old Colonial-style street lamps downtown, for example, conduit for broadband could be laid at the same time as the conduit for the replacement lights. Dave King, the city’s Public Works director, said there’s a possibility that the new lights could potentially serve as Wi-Fi centers.

“I’m not saying that we’re going to go there or offer that,” he said. “It’s just something to discuss as part of that project.”

Tills said a number of Virginia localities are working on broadband issues, but are taking different approaches. Some major cities are making significant investments while some rural, underserved areas are seeking state grants.

“Most of the emphasis now is on bringing broadband to rural areas,” she said. “We don’t want to get left out. We definitely want to bring in high-tech industry, and be competitive. It will help our labor force and help us in many ways.”

Every locality needs a plan for broadband, said Tills, who recommended doing in-depth needs assessment and crafting an action plan. She suggested applying to the Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon, which could do a study for free, or the city could pay to have a study done. Costs for this typically range from $30,000 to $100,000.

The study would allow the council to assess the city’s needs and the costs of addressing them, then prioritize its goals.

“It might be putting some money on the table in terms of, do we provide open-access conduit to incentivize competition? Since there are providers in the area, the city is probably not going to want to provide service directly. So our focus would be on bringing the providers in and getting offers for service.”

Councilman Matt Kelly suggested reaching out to U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R–1st District, who has been working with the George Washington Regional Commission on ways to expand broadband into underserved areas.

“Two of our areas, King George and Caroline, are underserved,” he said. “All roads lead through Fredericksburg.”

Councilwoman Kerry Devine asked if any businesses indicated on the survey that they were so unhappy with the broadband available in the city that they would move or not locate here. None did, but a percentage did say that they were unhappy with it, “which is telling,” said City Manager Tim Baroody.

“What’s the cure?” asked Councilman Billy Withers.

“The more competition there is, the more choices there are,” Tills replied.

Baroody said the discussion will help him and city staff better communicate the issues with broadband to the city’s current providers.

“Please don’t ignore us,” he said. “Rural areas need help, but we are still not where we need to be in the city of Fredericksburg. Hopefully, this resonates with them.”

©2018 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.