Could municipal broadband give city economic boost?

By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer

Like innovation districts and farm-to-table restaurants, municipal broadband networks are trending. More

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FOCUS: TECHNOLOGY

Could municipal broadband give city economic boost?

By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer

Posted 7/28/14

Like innovation districts and farm-to-table restaurants, municipal broadband networks are trending.

From Chattanooga, Tenn.’s publicly owned gigabit fiberoptic network to Google Fiber in Provo, Utah, schemes to provide a faster alternative to traditional Internet service providers have proliferated across the country.

For communities like Chattanooga, the motivation is economic development and a way to market the city to entrepreneurs. Elsewhere, civic considerations such as expanding Internet access in low-income neighborhoods or maintaining net neutrality play a larger role.

For others, a perceived failure of near-monopoly incumbent Internet providers to offer service as fast or as cheap as they could is reason enough to introduce government competition.

Now discussions about building a municipal fiber optic network are moving to Providence.

Democratic mayoral candidate Jorge Elorza, a former housing court judge, has proposed building one in the city to help stimulate business, innovation and the local knowledge economy.

“We have already missed the last technology boom that [Cambridge, Mass.,] has benefited from, and we cannot afford to be behind the curve and miss out again,” Elorza said in a phone interview. “A number of other cities have created broadband networks. Right now citywide broadband is bold, but in truth, in 15 to 20 years it will be standard. We have to invest now.” To set his plan in motion, Elorza will need to be elected, and he’ll also need to work out the details of his plan.

Municipal fiber networks come in a variety of shapes and sizes and rely on different business models.

Chattanooga’s network was built by its publicly owned electric utility, which happened to be replacing its transmission lines with new fiber optics and decided to add data to the mix. The resulting gigabit television and Internet service for residential and commercial customers remains run by that publicly owned utility.

In Provo, the city built the network, then sold it to Google Fiber, which runs it along with others in Kansas City, Mo., and Austin, Texas.

Elorza said he is most intrigued by a public-private plan in North Carolina, where six cities and three universities solicited bids from private companies to build and run a fiber network for them. AT&T was chosen and is in the process of building out the network.

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