Frustrated by inferior service from powerful telecom giants, new data suggests more than a thousand U.S. communities have now built their own broadband networks. While the trend has been accelerating for years, experts say it took off during a pandemic that painfully demonstrated the country’s need for better, faster, and more affordable broadband.
The Institute For Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) maintains a database and interactive map tracking community owned and operated broadband networks. Such networks take many forms, whether it’s a broadband network built on the back of a local power utility, a local government-run ISP built from scratch, or a locally-owned cooperative.
ILSR told Motherboard that its latest data shows that 83 municipal networks now deliver publicly-owned fiber across 148 communities, up from 63 such networks early last year. Fifty-seven communities now operate their own cable broadband network, 600 networks are built on the back of local governments, and hundreds more are regional cooperatives.
“We have seen a pretty dramatic jump since we last compiled the numbers and attribute that to networks recently being finished that were in construction for multiple years,” said ILSR’s Christopher Mitchell, who pointed to freshly-completed network builds in states like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine.
Harvard studies have shown such networks routinely provide faster, cheaper service than dominant ISPs like AT&T, Comcast, Charter, and Verizon. What’s more, revenues generated from local networks usually stay in the local community, and locally-owned ISPs tend to be more accountable to the public because employees often live in the communities they serve.
While not a silver bullet for all U.S. broadband woes, community broadband also prods entrenched regional monopolies to expand access, boost speeds and lower prices. Comcast, for example, refused to deliver fiber broadband to Chattanooga, Tennessee until a popular local community ISP—which Comcast had attempted to sue out of existence—did so first.
“With the interest we are seeing today, we would not be surprised to see the number of citywide municipal fiber networks double in the next 5 years,” Mitchell said.
U.S. broadband is a market and government failure 25 years in the making, and community broadband is the grass roots response. Efforts to measure the scope of this failure have only recently started to come into sharper focus as the government finally improves its historically inaccurate broadband availability maps.
Last June, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released a new map tracking both median broadband speeds and affordability. The areas in red represent locations where broadband speeds routinely fall below the FCC’s base definition of broadband, currently a pathetic 25 Mbps downstream, 3 Mbps up.
Looking more closely, one state stood out: North Dakota.
What did North Dakota do differently? Tired of substandard service from the regional phone monopoly, local companies and cooperatives bonded together to purchase 68 rural telephone exchanges in the 90s. With those assets they steadily deployed gigabit fiber across much of the state, and now offer faster service at prices frequently lower than most parts of the U.S.
As a result, more than three quarters of rural North Dakotans have access to fiber broadband, compared to roughly 20 percent of rural residents nationwide. In many parts of the country, regional phone companies have all but given up on upgrading or repairing their aging DSL lines, often because it’s not profitable enough, quickly enough for Wall Street.
Motivated by this apathy, Mitchell noted there’s now 330 U.S. communities served by rural electric cooperatives, 220 of which are providing fiber broadband to part or all of their footprints. Another 10 communities are served by direct broadband cooperatives—numbers Mitchell said are likely higher because they haven’t finished compiling 2021 data.
Unnerved by the trend, U.S. broadband giants have spent decades lobbying for state barriers to community broadband. According to a new report released by the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC), 20 states have passed laws limiting community broadband, frequently ghost written by regional telecom monopolies hoping to avoid having to try harder.
Mitchell and ILSR peg the total number of such bills as closer to 17, after Arkansas and Washington loosened their restrictions earlier this year. Both Mitchell and CLIC President Jim Baller told Motherboard that Covid—and the way the pandemic dramatically highlighted the importance of affordable, reliable broadband—lit a fire under the entire movement.
“When the COVID pandemic shut down our workplaces, schools, and settings for social interaction, it opened the eyes of millions of Americans to the critical importance of affordable access to the Internet,” Baller said. “Congress and many states have responded with funding for initiatives to ensure that no Americans are left behind in obtaining access to at least a minimum level of broadband Internet access.”
But while the $65 billion broadband component of the U.S. infrastructure bill originally proposed directly financing community broadband networks, that support was an early casualty of “bipartisan negotiations” and concessions that favored the telecom lobby.
ILSR data suggests that simply throwing more government subsidies at the problem historically hasn't worked well. That’s because the primary cause of spotty broadband often isn’t technical limitations or even money—it’s regional monopolization and the state and federal corruption that protects it. Mitchell’s group estimates that 83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly, usually Comcast.
The telecom industry lobbies relentlessly to maintain this status quo, convincing lawmakers to ignore the problem while whittling down the authority of the country’s top telecom regulators. With neither competition nor competent regulatory oversight to police the industry, Americans consistently pay more money for slower speeds than many developed nations.
That’s assuming they can get broadband at all. The FCC claims 14.5 million Americans still lack access to broadband, but inaccurate mapping means the number is likely significantly higher.
One report by broadband tracking firm BroadbandNow estimates the number is closer to 42 million, three times worse than government estimates. Another new report by real estate data analytics company Lightbox estimates that 60 million Americans lack access. Several experts have told Motherboard the real total likely lies somewhere around thirty million, but the fact we don’t actually know the scope of the problem we’re trying to fix speaks volumes.
Mitchell says that while Covid has definitely sparked renewed interest in fixing U.S. broadband, it’s the continued frustration at market failure and government inaction that truly fuels the rise of community broadband networks.
“The simple fact is that the federal and state governments are doing almost nothing to help people who have a broadband service available that partially meets their needs but abuses them with regular price hikes, spotty reliability, and poor customer service,” he said. “Local governments will continue to step in to build better networks because communities have very few other options.”