Voters Overwhelmingly Back Community Broadband in Chicago and Denver

Voters in both cities made it clear they’re fed up with monopolies like Comcast.
November 9, 2020, 2:11pm
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Image: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Voters in both Denver and Chicago have overwhelmingly thrown their support behind local community broadband projects, joining the hundreds of U.S. communities that have embraced home-grown alternatives to entrenched telecom monopolies.

In Chicago, roughly 90 percent of voters approved a non-binding referendum question that asked: “should the city of Chicago act to ensure that all the city's community areas have access to broadband Internet?" The vote opens the door to the city treating broadband more like an essential utility, potentially in the form of community-run fiber networks.

In Denver, 83.5 percent of the city’s electorate cast ballots in favor of question 2H, which asked if the city should be exempt from a 2005 law, backed by local telecom monopolies, restricting Colorado towns and cities from being able to build their own local broadband alternatives.

Colorado is one of nearly two-dozen states that have passed laws, usually directly written by regional telecom monopolies, that hamstring or prevent the creation of such networks.

But in Colorado’s case, the state’s 2005 law included language that allows local towns and cities to opt-out of the restriction if voters agree to do so.

Christopher Mitchell is director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that advocates for local solutions for sustainable development. He told Motherboard that in the 15 years since Colorado’s law was passed, 140 communities have opted out, opening the door to citizen-built ISPs like Nextlight in Longmont.

“I think the margin in Chicago and Denver is remarkable,” Mitchell said. “When we work with communities where half the residents have a cable monopoly and the other half don't have any broadband, the demand for something better is strong among both populations.”

Studies suggest that 42 million Americans lack access to any broadband whatsoever, double official FCC estimates. Mitchell’s organization estimates that roughly 83 million more Americans live under a broadband monopoly, usually Comcast. Tens of millions more live under a duopoly, usually consisting of Comcast and a largely apathetic regional telco selling aging DSL lines.

With muted competition and regulators and lawmakers largely loyal to entrenched monopolies, the end result is a broken market in which U.S. consumers pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for slow broadband and abysmal customer service.

“For years, we have said this is a major concern for voters but local leaders remain too intimidated by the big monopoly cable and telephone companies to act on it,” Mitchell said. “Maybe now we will see it taken more seriously.”

A Harvard study found that community-based broadband alternatives routinely offer faster speeds, lower prices, and better customer service than most regional monopolies. Such networks can also drive incumbent ISPs, all too comfortable with the lack of competition, to deploy upgrades and price reductions that wouldn’t have materialized otherwise.

Mitchell’s group argues that while community-backed broadband isn’t a silver bullet, such networks also tend to be more responsive to local complaints because they’re owned and operated by local residents with a vested interest in the success of their neighborhoods.

“I will be surprised if we don't see more campaigns for non-binding referenda in communities around the country that build on what organizers in Denver and Chicago have done,” Mitchell said.