In the US, municipal networks are all the rage

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

Jan 24, 2024

  • Municipal broadband networks are growing, flourishing and starting to worry the big US ISPs and cable operators
  • Deployments have been increasing rapidly since the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • There are now more than 400 publicly owned networks across the country and many others are planned
  • They offer a genuine alternative in a landscape that has been dominated by monopoly telco and cable broadband operators 
  • Tribal nations too are building and operating their own networks

There are now at least 447 community-owned communications networks across the US and the number continues to rise, according to an update from the body that runs the Community Broadband Networks Initiative (CBNI). 

The US Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), despite sounding like a body of concerned citizens of the sort that might have recruited Wyatt Earp to become City Marshall of the lawless Delano district of Wichita, Kansas, back in 1876, is a not-for-profit research and educational organisation that provides technical assistance and information to city and state governments, citizen organisations and industry in relation to publicly owned banking, energy and broadband networks. It runs the CBNI, which has grown to become a significant programme advising and aiding interested groups, local government and public utilities to improve local broadband and internet access across the US.

Its mission statement is to “Build local power to fight corporate control” as a “national research and advocacy organisation that partners with allies across the country to build an American economy driven by local priorities.” Fibre access municipal broadband networks have been in development for more than a decade but have become more important and spread further since the Covid-19 pandemic struck: At least 50 new such community-owned and locally controlled networks have been built and become operational since January 2021, while scores of others are either being built or are at the planning stage, according to the CBNI. Such networks are already very popular and, for example, in the state of California alone, plans are in train to deploy at least 40 new municipal fast broadband networks within the next two to five years.

According to Ry Marcattilio, the CBNI’s associate director for research, “Dozens of cities, ranging from [populations of] five thousand and a hundred thousand residents alike, have decided that enough is enough. From the midwest to the deep south, east coast to west, we’ve seen an incredible amount of new energy by cities over the last two years.”

He adds: “Instead of pleading with or giving additional handouts to the monopoly ISPs, they’ve decided to invest in themselves. It’s exciting to see so much happening, especially since we know our numbers are not completely exhaustive as there are no doubt cities building networks that have not yet become active or have reported service to [US regulator] the FCC.”

The latest wave of new municipal networks includes a broad range of sizes and types of infrastructure deployments: There are conduit-only networks, such as the one in West Des Moines, Iowa, that attracted Google Fiber, Mediacom, Lumen and local ISP Mi-Fiber to offer residents a choice of broadband providers; institutional networks, such as the I-net the city of Alexandria, Virginia built to serve local government operations, laying the ground for the municipality to partner with Ting for the development of fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) services citywide; open access networks like Yellowstone Fiber in Bozeman, Montana; and massive municipal FTTH networks, such as KUB Fiber, which is under construction in Knoxville, Tennessee. The ILSR notes that the Knoxville network is already offering services to residents and businesses, though it will take seven to 10 years before the Knoxville Utilities Board (KUB) finishes building out the entire KUB Fiber network, passing all 210,000 households in its 688-square-mile service area. Once completed, KUB Fiber will be one of the largest municipal broadband networks in the US, rivalling its Chattanooga neighbour EPB Fiber and the multi-state footprint of UTOPIA Fiber.

According to the ILSR’s most recent census, immediately prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, there were some 400 municipal broadband networks in the US, providing service to more than 600 different population groups. Of these, at least 200 were providing connectivity to 99% of all addresses in their communities.

Although US broadband networks in general stood up very well to the sudden and intense extra demands placed upon them as most of the economy moved, almost overnight, from traditional fixed office environments to a mobile workforce working from home, the big US internet service providers (ISPs) and telcos are widely regarded as regional monopolies, facing very limited or even no competition whilst providing expensive services of limited choice across much of the nation. Hence the increasing demand for publicly owned infrastructure.

Traditional cablecos and ISPs are getting spooked

According to Christopher Mitchell, long-serving director of the CBNI and the man behind the ILSR’s initiative to foster the development of community broadband, “The monopoly cable and telephone companies frequently claim that there are no problems with broadband in the US, even as millions of students cannot access the internet from their homes, whether in rural or urban areas. These cities remind us of the work that has to be done to make sure everyone can take advantage of modern technologies.”

And now, after years of first ignoring, then belittling and later denigrating municipal broadband systems and networks, the big established players are getting seriously rattled about having more and more of their lunch eaten by the quickly growing number of small co-operative organisations that are now delivering ubiquitous, affordable, top-quality, fast, local broadband connectivity. At the same time, those incumbent fixed broadband network operators are also facing fierce competition from the mobile operators’ fixed wireless access (FWA) broadband service offerings, which had attracted more than 7 million users by the end of the third quarter of 2023. 

That’s why the big operators are now spending big money on lobbying local politicians and municipal officials not to support what is alleged to be the ‘socialist verging on communist’ deployment of local broadband. They are also mounting expensive ‘information campaigns’ to convince local consumers not to sign up to municipal network services. The debate (such as it is) is now so rancorous that the American Association for Public Broadband has begun publicly to rebut the fanciful claims and dodgy statistics of the big ISPs and cablecos.

There may be little need: Subscribers are already sold on the concept of municipal community broadband, and its reputation for excellent, inexpensive service is growing organically as more and more grassroots local networks come on line to provide a real alternative to the airy promises and bad customer service that frequently go hand in hand with the de facto, expensive, rigid monopoly offerings of the big private companies.

It should be noted that the figures provided by the ILSR do not include the burgeoning numbers of broadband networks being deployed on tribal lands in the US by indigenous peoples. The Tribal nations are building and operating their own networks to spur their integration into the digital economy and society, and bridge the still deep and wide digital divide that greatly disadvantages the least and most badly connected parts of the US.

For additional US municipal network examples and developments, check out this ILSR update

– Martyn Warwick, Editor in Chief, TelecomTV

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