Broadband: Public Officials Want More Government Participation

A Governing survey shows strong support for government-run fiber networks, but it’s less clear how they will get built.
August 29, 2013

First there was dial up. Then came something called DSL. Followed by coaxial cable broadband. Now, it's all about fiber. A fiber-optic network can be 200 times faster than cable and has the potential to trigger a new generation of economic development. So, it should come as no surprise than that 69 percent of public officials cite economic factors as the top reason why cities need to have fiber.

This, according to a new survey conducted online in July by the Governing Exchange, the research arm of Governing. More than 125 senior managers in state and local government were polled, and about 70 percent said they believe fiber networks should be considered a public good that government regulates and sometimes runs, similar to water, sewer and other utility services.

Fiber networks are seen by many as one of the most important infrastructure developments of the 21st century. Hair-thin glass fibers can deliver voice, data and video in quantities and speeds that are considered transformative by experts. But how does this next generation Internet superhighway get built and who builds it?

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It certainly won't be the major cable TV and telecom providers, critics say. They own most of today's broadband networks, which reach 89 percent of Americans. There's no incentive, critics say, for them to embrace fiber.

But demand for next generation fiber is rising and our survey found that 59 percent of public officials believe government should play an active role in the deployment of fiber networks. But that interest doesn't translate into action either. Only 24 percent of the respondents said they have either an active plan, proposal or are considering implementation of a publicly-owned fiber network in their community.

Currently, 150 cities and towns have their own, municipally run broadband network, either cable or fiber. The one big stand out is Chattanooga, Tenn., which is America's largest city with a municipally owned fiber network available to residents and businesses. The city's utility, EPB, launched fiber broadband in 2012 as part of a broad economic development strategy that would also provide the city government with innovative capabilities in delivering better services for public safety, transportation, public works and education.

One reason why only a small percentage of cities are planning on pursuing their own fiber networks is the cost. Several cities have racked up significant losses trying to build their own networks. One solution is to find a partner, whether it's a cable provider or Google, which has partnered with several cities to build fiber networks. Another option is for multiple cities to work together to create a regional operation. But then there are the 19 states that have passed laws that block local governments from setting up publicly owned broadband services.

Despite the obstacles, a small but growing number of cities, especially in the more rural areas of the country, are pursuing the development of their own networks. Spurring them on might be the fact that electricity was once a service delivered exclusively by the private sector. Today, 2,000 cities operate public power utilities, and more than 900 cooperatively owned power companies collectively serve more than 100 million Americans. Could fiber networks be the next piece of infrastructure with strong public involvement?

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