Computing Profession

Rethinking Public Broadband

Municipal broadband is roadblocked or outlawed in 20 states.
Connectivity challenges highlighted by the pandemic have yielded a patchwork of stopgap measures to provide emergency network access to students who did not have an Internet connection at home.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, could it also be worth 25 megabits per second?

A viral photo of two little girls sitting in a fast-food restaurant’s parking lot in Salinas, CA, in order to pick up a Wi-Fi signal to do their homework may be the single most succinct image of how the Covid-19 pandemic, through the lens of educational necessity, has exposed the shortcomings of the broadband infrastructure of the U.S.

Meeting the connectivity challenges posed by the pandemic has resulted in a messy patchwork of “best-effort” stopgap measures by municipalities to provide emergency network access to students who did not have an Internet connection at home, along with a smattering of federal and state grant funding. It also has reignited a two-decade-old debate over what telecommunications services should qualify for subsidies to homes, and whether or not local government should advocate for, and pay for, broadband facilities.

Two of the nation’s most visible municipal broadband networks, located in Wilson, NC, and Chattanooga, TN, have responded to crises created by the pandemic, and may serve as exemplars of both the potential and limitations of the current state of the art in publicly funded networks.

In Wilson, the city’s municipally-owned broadband network, Greenlight, laid 3,000 feet of fiber to get reliable high-speed service to a teacher who was forced to teach from home when schools converted to remote learning in the earliest days of the pandemic. Will Aycock, Greenlight’s general manager, said the teacher’s situation was not unique.

“We’ve been expanding steadily for the past six years, but every day the phone rings and people who are just beyond the edge of the network have the same situation,” Aycock said. “They say it’s been an annoyance for some time that they didn’t have access to quality broadband, but now it’s gone from a nuisance to a major issue. It self-evidently illustrates that it is essential infrastructure and everyday life is becoming more and more dependent on it.”

Greenlight has also added about 30 Wi-Fi access points throughout its footprint, as well as a low-cost Lifeline basic-level service with enough bandwidth that students can access remote learning tools.

In Chattanooga, the city’s municipally-owned network and electrical provider, EPB, announced in July that students in the city and surrounding Hamilton County schools who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches would also receive a 100-megabit-per-second symmetric network connection and Wi-Fi router free of charge (the schools already provide students with a school-financed Chromebook computer). The $8.2-million program is intended to last 10 years, and through a series of public-private partnerships with local philanthropic foundations, had already reached 75% of its fundraising goal upon launch.

Patchwork Solutions Nationwide

Wilson and Chattanooga are not alone in newly emphasizing improved access to ensure educational opportunity. Among other projects kick-started in response to the pandemic:

  • The State of Mississippi authorized $73 million in grants to 19 electrical cooperatives to construct symmetric 100 Mbps networks in underserved areas of the state. By the end of next year, officials estimate an additional 45,000 homes and businesses will be hooked up to the new services.
  • The State of North Carolina awarded $12 million to broadband projects in 11 rural counties, expected to serve 8,000 families and 254 businesses.
  • The City of New Haven, CT, will distribute 21,000 devices to students in the city’s public schools and establish 10,000 Comcast basic access accounts funded by the State of Connecticut. The state has also paid for 3,000 Kajeet hot-spot devices, and the Sprint One Million Project is providing another 150 hot spots for students without access to Comcast infrastructure.
  • The City of Hartford, CT, will install an extensive network of outdoor wireless access points across the city, providing a minimum of LTE-standard speed throughout the city at all times and at no cost to residents. The city expects the majority of its residents will be able to access the Internet at speeds greater than that available on LTE-speed. Two private foundations will shoulder $3 million of the $3.8-million cost to build the network, with the city providing the rest, as well as $100,000 in ongoing wireless network costs, leveraging its existing wireless contracts.

These are just a few of the efforts underway to improve access to educational and commercial applications as students learn from home and their parents work remotely. Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative of the Minneapolis, MN-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said in his estimation the pandemic is the single biggest event to bring new emphasis to the policy discussion around expanding broadband access.

“We’re entering a new stage,” Mitchell said. “For years, when people talked about broadband problems, it was how to get money into rural areas. The cable companies were fine with that and they even shaped how that policy went in anticipation of this moment. The question now is also how do we get broadband access in areas that have cable access? In particular, it finalizes the requirements that we have to solve this problem by getting broadband into peoples’ homes. It’s not enough to have it at a library or a McDonalds.”

To some extent, Wilson and Chattanooga represent in microcosm the dilemma municipalities face in delivering essential services to people’s homes, and the seemingly endless legal battle over whether local public utilities can offer broadband where it either does not exist or to people who cannot afford private carrier prices. Both have had to contend with state laws limiting their footprint. While incumbent carriers have long stated publicly funded networks present unfair competition, Deb Socia, CEO of Chattanooga’s Enterprise Center, the city’s non-profit economic development partner, said municipalities should have the right to offer an alternative to private networks when those networks are not available, unaffordable, or do not deliver adequate service.

Socia, previously executive director of Next Century Cities (NCC), a national broadband equity advocacy organization, hopes the issues raised by the pandemic will amply demonstrate a flexible approach that includes public and private investment is needed.

“We fought bad policy and bad law,” Socia said of NCC’s mission. “There are those who will say those bad laws are paid for by ISPs. I’m not making that statement. We at NCC were pro-competition, and whatever prevented competition, we were against. Limiting local decision-making, limiting cooperatives or municipal broadband, creates less competition in the marketplace. I could choose another option here, but I bet I would pay less for that option than if it were the only option in town. I pay under $70 for a gigabit per second symmetrical at home. I don’t probably need that, but it’s pretty cool to have, and I pay a lot less for it than I paid for regular broadband in Washington, D.C.”

Of the patchwork of local public-private partnerships such as New Haven’s, or the limited reach of state grant-funded approaches like North Carolina’s, Socia said, “I understand why people are doing these ‘Band-Aid’ approaches. If you have a problem today, you have to solve it today. I think had those of us who have worked in the digital equity space for years and years had a platform sooner than the pandemic to really make the impact clear, maybe we would have been investing dollars differently all along.”

No Clear Path Forward

Telecommunications policy expert Blair Levin, who oversaw the FCC’s National Broadband Plan in 2009-10, said he drew similar lessons from the effects of the pandemic as he did in studying the state of the nation’s networks a decade ago.

“I think the biggest lesson now is the same lesson I drew after working on the National Broadband Plan,” said Levin, now a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “And that lesson is, to thrive in the 21st century global information economy, the U.S. needs networks everywhere, with everyone on them, and needs to do a much better job of using those networks to deliver essential public services.”

That so little was accomplished in terms of creating ubiquitous networks since the plan was released, Levin said, “When we were working on these issues in 2010, there were a lot of other critical issues facing society that seemed much bigger. A lot of people on both sides of the political aisle had other things they were focused on. But as you move to an economy and society that can utilize remote everything, the importance of these issues clearly increases.”

While Levin lauded the creative local partnerships that had been launched across the nation to get broadband into more homes, he said, “these are the kinds of things where the economics are such that scale really does matter.”

Levin added that there is no bipartisan consensus on how to proceed: H.R. 2, the omnibus infrastructure bill passed by the House of Representatives in July, includes $80 billion in construction funds for broadband networks, $9 billion in connectivity subsidies for low-income households, and a prohibition against state laws limiting or forbidding publicly funded local networks. However, the Senate has not taken the bill up.

Additionally, Levin said, while the usual generalities about improving broadband networks are included in the Democratic Presidential platform, Republicans did not even offer a new party platform for the 2020 election.

“Fundamentally, there is a need for national leadership, and I don’t want to make partisan political statements,” Levin said. “There was one party platform that talked about the digital divide, and one that didn’t.”

While ILSR’s Mitchell said he thought Democrats would have to sweep the presidency and gain control of both houses of Congress in the upcoming election to enact change to the extent their platform and legislation have advocated, he also said other avenues such as more flexible subsidies to incumbent ISPs could create new solutions if they kept prices low enough. He referred to the viral photo of the two girls in the parking lot and the GoFundMe drive that eventually collected more than $145,000 for their family.

“I feel like the dam could break on this,” he said. “The cable and phone companies are very powerful at lobbying, but I feel like there is so much frustration, not just from people who don’t have access, but from people who have some, or from people who have good access and are tired of watching their bill go up every year. There’s a possibility the policy tide will turn against the big providers when elected officials realize how much frustration there is.”

Gregory Goth is an Oakville, CT-based writer who specializes in science and technology.

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