Communities across the country are often the drivers of innovation when it comes to bringing fast, affordable and competitive broadband to their residents and businesses. By creating innovative partnerships with broadband providers — or by delivering service themselves — they are proving that people in communities large and small want better Internet access, and by leading the charge, are often running up against emerging challenges to increasing broadband competition and access.
According to the Federal Communication Commission’s Broadband Progress Report in 2016, fewer than 40 percent of Americans have a choice in broadband providers in their home. From small cities like Ammon, Idaho, and Sandy, Ore., to large metro areas like San Francisco and Montgomery County in Maryland, local governments have found that they can improve Internet access in apartment buildings, low-income neighborhoods, or even the entire community with a variety of new tools ranging from public investment to enacting truly pro-competition policies.
To showcase the latest local successes and challenges, Next Century Cities, a national organization with more than 160 mayors and local government members committed to bringing faster, affordable broadband Internet access to their residents, released a new Emerging Issues Policy Agenda with strategies that can dramatically improve local connectivity.
The Policy Agenda, released April 3, tackles some of the barriers Next Century Cities communities are facing as they work to bring high-speed Internet to their citizens. For instance, communities should have the ability to invest in competitive network infrastructure. Unfortunately, some 20 states have passed anti-competition laws that limit local authority and take away communities’ ability find the broadband solution that works for them.
Despite these state restrictions on local Internet choice, some communities have found creative ways to ensure access, which are highlighted in the Policy Agenda. For example, Lincoln, Neb., built underground conduits that have been used to increase investment in both wireless and fiber-optic systems.
Local governments have also faced legal challenges in trying to remove barriers to competition embodied in the surprisingly important pole attachment processes. Several of the big incumbent providers have effectively denied utility pole access to new competitors, making it difficult-to-impossible for new providers to enter the market.
That’s why cities like Louisville, Ky., and Nashville, Tenn., passed “one-touch make-ready” policies to make it harder for existing players to deny new providers the ability to bring in broadband choice. These commonsense policies are explored in the new Policy Agenda. But unfortunately, both cities have been sued by big cable and telephone companies that would rather litigate than compete.
In the area of wireless broadband, another emerging issue, local governments and the wireless industry should collaborate on a streamlined permitting processes that will allow “small cell wireless” to flourish and bring Internet access to more residents. Increasingly, mobile companies are opting for small radio devices located on street lights and similarly scaled equipment in lieu of the traditional large towers, and cities are working to take advantage of this new technology for their residents.
For example, Boston and Lincoln have both developed model policies with Verizon Wireless that allow rapid deployment at reasonable costs and compensation to the city for use of public property. But some wireless firms, led by AT&T, are lobbying for states to restrict local review authority and to dramatically limit the compensation the public would get for access to public property.
Another obstacle to delivering better access, which is explored in the Policy Agenda, comes from apartment landlords. Current laws generally give building owners broad latitude to restrict tenant access to multiple service providers, allowing powerful firms to effectively buy the building and lock out competition. But San Francisco has passed an ordinance giving tenants the right to choose their own Internet providers by requiring building owners to give registered providers reasonable access to deliver their services.
More than 20 years after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 outlawed formal monopolies with the goal of establishing competition as the official national policy, too few consumers have meaningful choice in broadband Internet access.
The good news is that local leaders are embracing emerging policies and investments that can create competition and give their residents the ability to have real choice, reasonable pricing, and innovation in their broadband. Because as the mayors and local leaders who are part of Next Century Cities know, access to fast, affordable and reliable Internet will bring real opportunity to more people.
Deb Socia is the executive director of Next Century Cities, a nonprofit membership organization of 167 communities, founded to support communities and their elected leaders, including mayors and other officials, as they seek to ensure that all have access to fast, affordable and reliable Internet access.