The Biden administration estimates that there are more than 30 million Americans living in areas without access to broadband Internet. The infrastructure plan may contain a solution.
Municipal broadband is Internet access provided fully or partially by a local government. Often, municipal Internet has been a response to a problem.
Take Kutztown, Pennsylvania, which was unable to attract broadband ISPs due to its distance from the nearest hub. Kutztown built a municipal ISP that not only serves its 5,000 residents well but ignited competition from the ISPs that once shunned it.
The Laws Preventing Municipal Internet Service:
Building a municipal broadband service is not without its challenges, and these difficulties extend far beyond the expected complexities that come with planning and implementing a fiber-optics communications network.
Many states have laws that restrict how municipal entities can compete in order to prevent any unfair advantages that they may have against private companies.
In some states, such as Texas, municipal broadband is outlawed, and it many others, there are bureaucratic barriers that make it difficult to establish and which continue to present difficulties as they operate.
Internet as a Utility:
A majority of surveyed Americans believe that Internet access is as important as clean water, electricity, garbage collection, and so forth. This mirrors a trend in government where it is increasingly recognized, for instance, that a child without access to the Internet is at a severe disadvantage to other kids.
The Biden Administration Infrastructure Plan:
The infrastructure bill introduced by the Biden administration is an expansive $2 trillion plan to enhance the infrastructure of the United States.
A focal point of the America Jobs Plan is to invest in rural America, which is often burdened by modernization that lags behind an even outright decay. Within the bill is a law that would block states from interfering with government-owned Internet services.
Even before the bill, the U.S. Economic Development Administration had already doled out millions in grants in order to help public Internet services expand in their regions. A high-profile example is Greenlight in Wilson, North Carolina, which will soon expand into small towns like Stantonsburg due to the influx of funds.
The Arguments Against Municipal Internet:
It likely comes as no surprise that the big cable companies in America like Dish Network or Verizon have long lobbied against public Internet.
Do they care if Kutztown—a borough they did not deem profitable enough—now has Internet? Probably not, but what they do fear is competition in areas that are profitable. But it is more than just competition. Concerns over unfair business practices cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Taxpayer-funded enterprises do have inherent advantages over private ones and must be regulated carefully. It is also argued that public service providers are ill-equipped for the modernization that will inevitably be required. Proponents of municipal Internet point to the grand success stories, such as Wilson. But there are failures, such as Burlington, Vermont, which proved to be a burden on its citizens.
Creating Greater Competition:
The greater issue is that the giant ISPs in America often operate as monopolies even though there is no monopoly technically.
America has a connectivity issue beyond its major cities, and companies like Xfinity and Verizon did not care that Kutztown lacked modern Internet. These companies would rather Kutztown suffer to protect their future interests. But when Kutztown succeeded on its own, it forced companies like Comcast to slash their prices and give consumers more options.