State and local governments aren't typically known for leading the way on technology. Remember that West Virginia library that uses a $20,000 router for a building the size of a trailer?
But all that’s changing fast, at least at the municipal level—and the demand for broadband is what's driving this shift. No longer content to let residents suffer from poor Internet access, cities and towns saw a need to boost their tech savvy. Now many are partnering with technologists in order to take matters into their own hands.
While some municipalities have taken on the extraordinarily complex task of building their own networks, others have succeeded with lower-tech methods. Streamlining permitting processes and readying public infrastructure has helped some draw in new ISPs such as Google Fiber. Other cities and towns are taking advantage of legal processes to pressure incumbents into offering better and cheaper service. And still other cities are laying fiber conduits every time construction workers dig up the ground for unrelated projects, allowing quicker upgrades from cable and copper. In all these ways, cities and towns are showing that smart management can be just as important as high-tech systems when it comes to making broadband accessible and affordable to everyone.
“Hundreds [of cities and towns] have done something already and hundreds more are evaluating it now and are likely to take action,” Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told Ars. “I think thousands recognize a need but aren’t committed yet.”
Driving fiber fervor
It’s been obvious for years how important Internet access is in modern life and business. But a few new factors have helped convince municipalities that they have to take action now or risk being left behind.
Google Fiber has had an impact far beyond the few cities where it actually exists. “Google gives something credibility. I think all the cities that are not going to get Google investments are recognizing that they need to do something,” Mitchell said.
Besides the Google effect, growing frustration over a lack of competition is fueling city efforts, with the pending Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger having “set off alarm bells in recognizing that things are getting worse in terms of monopoly,” according to Mitchell.
More than 1,100 cities applied for Google Fiber in 2010, but only Kansas City; Austin, Texas; and Provo, Utah were successful.
“We all competed for Google Fiber,” Raleigh, North Carolina CIO Gail Roper told Ars. “That got our heads going in terms of potential benefits and we just felt like we were the right region to push it forward.” After losing out on Google Fiber, Raleigh teamed up with Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Winston-Salem to form the North Carolina Next Generation Network. The area now has a deal with AT&T to bring gigabit fiber to residents.
Cities and towns have come to understand that “having world-class bandwidth is maybe even more important than having an NFL football team,” said Blair Levin, a former FCC official who oversaw development of the National Broadband Plan under President Obama and is now executive director of the Gig.U fiber initiative.
Levin has gone around the country helping cities understand why action at the local level is so important. While Internet service providers often don’t compete against each other in individual cities and towns, the cities and towns are in effect competing against each other because broadband infrastructure fuels growth.
“I was in front of College Station, Texas, and I remember a city councilor saying something to the effect of ‘Oh I get what you’re saying—our cable company doesn’t compete with South Korea Telecom, but we compete with Seoul, Korea,’” Levin told Ars.