Can publicly owned internet close the digital divide in US cities?
Residents of an affordable senior housing development in East Baltimore register to receive free, high-speed home Internet service in October 2022. Project Waves/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation
What’s the context?
Plans for massive federal funding are boosting U.S. efforts to view broadband as a utility
- Fifth of the country lacks internet access
- Municipal broadband can reach unconnected, backers say
- Government rolling out $65 billion 'Internet for All' program
WASHINGTON - Software engineer Dan Shuhler spent 15 years frustrated with patchy internet service while living in apartments in Arlington, Virginia – and having no recourse.
Each of those complexes contracted with just a single internet provider, leaving residents with no option for other services – a common situation, he said.
"I'd probably rather have the water go out than the internet – I can get bottled water, but trying to find another place to work isn't doable," Shuhler, 40, told Context.
Shuhler has since bought a house, but he supports an effort to push Arlington to copy a strategy backers say has proven successful elsewhere: publicly owned, locally controlled internet service.
"Especially now with everything online, it's basically a requirement to function in society," Shuhler added.
Supporters say a public option could create more local competition, prompt increased investment, drive down prices – and reach those without internet connections.
Such debates are happening across the country, bolstered by the COVID-19 pandemic moving key services such as healthcare, grocery shopping and government processes online, and now by preparations for a massive federal program to close the digital divide.
About a fifth of the country lacks internet access, particularly in poor, rural and Native American communities, according to public records.
"Treat it like a public utility – then everyone is getting proper access to it and hopefully improving service," said Tim Dempsey, a member of the ArlFiber Collective, a volunteer group that has been pushing the issue in Arlington.
The county is conducting a study on addressing the digital divide that will include a community broadband option, with recommendations due this year.
"Robust broadband connectivity has become a driver of progress in ... economic development, affordable healthcare, public security, transportation, education and much more," said Jim Baller of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, an umbrella group of public and private entities.
Not making such investments "isn't just a matter of a dropped Zoom call," he said. "You're retarded in your ability to stay current in all of those areas."
Yet some worry the new federal funding efforts place too much emphasis on public initiatives – and say their worth is unproven.
"At the very least, this should be a level playing field, with those forming the best proposals receiving the grant money," said Johnny Kampis, director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a watchdog group.
The alliance in April released a report citing "unprecedented interest" in publicly owned networks but warning that such projects have often proved wasteful, redundant and inefficient in closing the digital divide.
Year of the 'public option'?
Community broadband networks now serve more than 20 million homes, according to the recently formed American Association for Public Broadband, a nonprofit founded by state and local officials.
"The time for public broadband has come," Gigi Sohn, the association's first executive director, said in an interview following her appointment this month.
"This is the right thing at the right time, with money flowing and people sick of not having affordable choices," said Sohn, a former nominee for commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission.
About 600 communities are served by some form of municipal network, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's community broadband networks initiative.
Dozens more such projects are in the pipeline, said Sean Gonsalves, communications lead for the initiative, pointing to Knoxville, Tennessee; Pharr, Texas; Waterloo, Iowa, and elsewhere.
"For decades the market has been broken. Most Americans get internet service through a monopoly cable provider, and here all these years later ... we still have this digital divide," said Gonsalves.
Some cities are creating their own internet provider, while others are simply putting in high-speed infrastructure and allowing providers to use it.
Municipal systems have tended to result in more affordable rates and some of the fastest options available, Gonsalves said, citing efforts in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Wilson, North Carolina; Fairlawn, Ohio, and elsewhere.
Yet these systems have been contentious, and 16 states have restricted such a "public option", according to research group BroadbandNow, after Colorado this month rolled back its barriers.
Nonetheless, 2023 "could be the year that things begin to change", it said in an April report, fueled by the massive new federal funding available.
The government last year created a $65 billion "Internet for All" initiative aiming to build out high-speed internet infrastructure and bring down cost, with money expected to start flowing in coming months.
Regulators have been explicit that local governments should be eligible.
"We want to get the best possible networks built," said a spokesperson with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in emailed comments.
"To do that, we've asked states to create a level playing field on which municipalities; cooperatives; and small, medium, and large companies can all compete for these funds."
Still, draft guidance requires financial letters of credit from applicants, which could be an obstacle for local governments, said Jake Varn, a principal associate with Pew's Broadband Access Initiative.
It is "an outstanding question" as to whether a waiver or other process could be put in place, he said, given that municipal governments "don't necessarily operate on that same financial plane as a for-profit provider".
Los Angeles County is using pandemic relief money to build what could become one of the largest municipal broadband projects in the country.
The effort was motivated by residents' problems during the pandemic accessing telehealth, applying for jobs and engaging in financial transactions, said Selwyn Hollins, director of the county's internal services department.
About 400,000 county households lack home internet – a figure so large as to have generational impact, Hollins said, but one that is relatively invisible.
The new program will allow selected companies to use publicly owned roofs, towers and other infrastructure to bring free broadband to low-income households, with thousands likely connected by the end of the year.
"In parts of the county, there's only one provider, so there's no other option for people," Hollins said. "This is a very expensive place to live, so the choice has become difficult for a lot of families."
While still new, the effort fits in with any county's responsibility to support the most vulnerable, Hollins said. "This is what we do."
Elsewhere, nonprofits are working to fill this role.
Price is also the main obstacle in Baltimore, Maryland, where 40% of homes do not have a broadband subscription, said Samantha Musgrave, director of Project Waves.
The nonprofit works to bring free broadband to tenants in apartment complexes, currently serving around 1,000 low-income households – and with a long list of interested properties.
"The internet is a utility, the same as water or electricity," Musgrave said. "And we need to be really serious about the way that we're providing access to this utility."
(Reporting by Carey L. Biron, Editing by Zoe Tabary)
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