Government Technology

Do Big Cities Avoid Muni Broadband?

March 5, 2013 By

About 340 communities nationwide offer publicly-owned fiber-optic or cable networks, according to a new map from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. But as one expert told The Atlantic Cities, there are few big cities on the map. 

The largest city-owned broadband network serves about 170,000 households in Chattanooga, Tenn., with Lafayette, La., coming in second, serving 120,000 residents. 

According to Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute's Telecommunications as Commons Initiative, the most interesting differences on the map are between Knoxville and Chattanooga or between Chattanooga and cities much larger than it. The issue, he told The Atlantic Cities, is that small business owners in places like Knoxville complain about slow Internet speeds and the high cost of doing business outside of Chattanooga -- and cities with networks like the one Chattanooga built will inevitably lure jobs.

And this is the reason that some larger areas are now starting to think about muni broadband. "Seattle and Chicago are looking around and basically saying, 'If we’re the last ones to get really high-quality access to the internet, then we’re really going to be screwed,'" Mitchell told the publication.

But why aren’t these larger big cities already deploying municipal broadband? "I feel like big cities have this arrogance," Mitchell says. "They thought, 'We’re so great, we are so cosmopolitan.' They never thought they’d have to worry about competing with Chattanooga over jobs."

In addition, residents in large cities tend to be much less connected to City Hall than people in small towns. They are therefore far less accepting of the concept of a new government-run public utility than their rural counterparts.

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Alvin    |    Commented March 6, 2013

"But why aren’t these larger big cities already deploying municipal broadband?" You think maybe is has something to do with the influence of cable companies and telcoms like att, Verizon and Comcast?

Robert Bell    |    Commented March 6, 2013

Mr. Mitchell makes an important point. But there is more than arrogance to the disinterest of big cities in building muni networks. Big cities typically attract multiple private-sector telco providers and start with a higher level of service than smaller cities. When what you have is pretty good, it is harder to get excited about getting something great.

Very Interested    |    Commented March 6, 2013

Is that the best use of taxpayer dollars? The reason most big cities haven't adapted to this idea is because they already have many options for broadband. Most big cities that have attempted this have failed. Lets let the experts such as the telcos provide the broadband since they are the experts. Government has no business using taxpayer money to provide internet acces. All they will be doing is taking away jobs from the the companies that provide the service today. Lets find better use of taxpayer money and save jobs.

Jerry Schulz    |    Commented March 7, 2013

This is not so much a question of why the big cities don't pursue broadband but more one of why smaller places do. The answer is that the smaller places (and many are very small) tend to be underserved by the cable and phone companies, and they're doing it because if they don't their citizens and businesses will go without--or at least that was so when they got into the business originally. Another issue is that many of the big cities jumped into this years ago when the Wi-Fi technology was not mature. I don't believe any of those projects (e.g., Philadelphia) worked, and so these cities may be understandably nervous about trying again now that the technology is more mature. But also be wary about holding Chattanooga up as a model; they’re able to do it because like the little guys but unlike most big cities they can piggyback on a municipal electric utility. Plus their rates strike me as kind of high; the argument for municipalities getting into this is that they can provide universal service plus do it cheaper than the cable and phone companies.

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