More than 100 U.S. cities have publicly owned broadband networks, according to a comprehensive map that plots U.S. cities with publicly owned citywide wired networks. Developed by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), a nonprofit economic and community development consultancy that advocates for community broadband, the map is the first of its kind to track community owned broadband access nationwide..

The map shows communities that offer fiber-to-the-home networks on a citywide basis to residents and businesses and locally owned government cable networks.

Chris Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the ILSR, said the map shows a lot more publicly owned networks than expected and also illustrates the overall growth of community networks.

“This is something that’s been going on for a long time in terms of public ownership of telecommunication facilities,” said Mitchell, “and there’s a lot more of these communities than many, particularly in [Washington] D.C., are aware of.”

The number of cities on the map should increase over the next few years, Mitchell said, continuing a trend that started years ago. But the slow economy may have stalled efforts to build significantly more publicly owned broadband networks. Some cities, such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., built broadband networks although cable and DSL were available from private telecommunication companies.

“To overbuild an existing provider, particularly massive national companies that have so much power, it takes a lot of work. I’m surprised at how well so many of these networks have done given those barriers,” Mitchell said. “On top of that, you also throw in political barriers that have been created by state legislatures in a number of places.”

Four  states — Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas Texas— have outright bans on building publicly owned broadband, while other states have no barriers, “de facto bans” or various barriers. Mitchell said because of Missouri’s ban on community operated networks, Kansas City, Mo., may have lost the Google bid for an ultra high-speed broadband network to Kansas City, Kan.

And some states that are permitted by legislation to build publicly owned broadband networks might soon be regulated. A bill under consideration in North Carolina, for example, would place restrictions on establishing municipal broadband networks. [http://www.govtech.com/wireless/Controversial-Broadband-Bill-North-Carolina.html]. The legislation was bashed by an FCC commissioner on Monday, April 4, saying it was against the National Broadband Plan’s vision.

In general, telecoms support regulation of community broadband networks.

Buck Yarborough, president of the North Carolina Cable Telecommunications Association, said when government owned networks compete with private network providers, it should be done in a “competitively neutral” way.

“Competitors should be treated equally,” Yarborough said. “Municipal providers should not use their inherent government powers to unfairly discriminate against private businesses.”

U.S. Telecom, a trade association that represents broadband service providers, claims that community broadband projects don’t benefit citizens and waste taxpayer dollars.

“Government owned broadband networks are not a viable path toward providing consumers with efficient and affordable service,” said Anne Veigle, U.S. Telecom’s vice president of media affairs. “Experience has shown that such projects ultimately discourage broadband deployment as private capital is displaced with public funds, needlessly burdening taxpayers.”

Mitchell said it takes at least a few years for cities to complete the process required to plan, construct and launch a municipal broadband network. Consequently, he said, it will take a while for more cities to appear on the map.

Click on the map below to go to the interactive map at the website of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.