The Future of Broadband Is Here Today – And You’re Going to Miss It

While the various federal agencies and Congress discuss, pontificate and wage war over the future of broadband, here’s a little secret. That vision they have of getting 100 Mbps service to 100 million homes by 2020? Several U.S. markets have already gone way beyond it to deliver the future of broadband today.

In many respects, Washington insiders determined to get the U.S to a better place when it comes to broadband are held back by large telcos, forced to fight last century’s telecom wars. But while Washington debates, many markets miss out. Those who want better broadband should take their lessons from some of the cities who have successfully deployed their own networks.

Chattanooga, Tenn. is rolling out a citywide network that delivers 150 Mbps to customers. Today. Not five or ten years down the road. “Our employees designed the network,” said Lacie Newton, spokesperson Katie Espeseth, VP of fiber optics for EPB, Chattanooga’s public utility. “Along with contracted employees from private companies they are building and operating the network. No doubt there are others capable of providing advanced communication services. But unless we did it ourselves, we didn’t believe that others would bring these type services to every home and business in our community.”

In North Carolina, Time Warner Cable declares war on municipal broadband networks every year in the state legislature. One such fight ended just last week, and the municipalities won. The rest of the state may want to take that victory and model itself after Wilson, N.C. The city of Wilson’s small IT Department built a fiber network that delivers residential service that’s 10 times faster than Time Warner Cable’s top service tier of 10 Mbps. Wilson’s own 10 Mbps service comes at a lower price than Time Warner’s. Aside from being 18 months ahead of its return on investment projections, which reflects competent business management, Wilson’s network offers technically impressive services. For example, it can provide businesses a gigabit connection. Instead of fighting the city, Time Warner should send their engineers and marketers to Wilson to figure this stuff out.

Santa Monica, Calif.’s IT crew started their fiber network with no money in the budget, just the $750,000 they eliminated from the city’s operations budget by replacing expensive older communications technology. With this initial “investment” they upgraded the city’s fiber network, and then sold local businesses broadband services that Verizon (s vz) wouldn’t offer. Within four years the IT group built up a $2.5 million capital fund. They recently announced a 10 gigabit service.

These local governments, businesses, institutions and regular citizens rallied together and said “if broadband is to be, it is up to me.” They’re not alone. Close to 60 communities run their own fiber networks, some more than a decade old, in many cases, offering faster speeds than incumbent telcos in their markets.

A new take on free market forces

While the FCC explores a third way on a path made needlessly longer by national corporate interests, local markets are delivering broadband’s future faster with a fourth way. Congress and the FCC could do the U.S. a world of good by keying in on this possibly better way, and by changing how we think about the task of bringing true broadband to communities that need and want it. Champions of free market forces may want to consider the merits of this approach to broadband that Communities United for Broadband finds effective in calling small-town and urban America to action. The principles of the approach are as follows:

  1. Our community is a free market.
  2. As a market, our businesses, local government, institutions and individuals collectively spend significant dollars on communication services.
  3. Despite our spending as a market, we have un-met broadband needs and unfulfilled dreams.
  4. Subsequently, we will use our purchasing power and political clout to get the broadband we need and want through private- and/or public-sector solutions.
  5. Key to the success of our free market strategy is our ability to encourage, facilitate or create competitors in our market, which we will do.

This free market approach to broadband, rather than a “what’s good for big teleco is good for broadband” philosophy, encourages bringing representatives from communities into a full partnership with private sector organizations to shape policy. More importantly, this approach should lead D.C. and state decision makers to create rules, procedures, grants, legislation, etc. that enable communities to implement their own best solutions. For example, reform Universal Service Fund (USF) procedures so local communities have a strong voice in deciding which broadband plans receive USF awards.

Local markets (towns, cities, counties, even states) that own the problems of inadequate or unavailable infrastructure broadband need to be driving a lot of this decision-making. They own the issue. They reap the rewards, or suffer the unfulfilled promises, of broadband resulting from Congress’ and the Federal agencies’ decisions.

In January last year, I wrote a report on broadband that said:

“We need Congressional legislation that removes barriers to local communities’ ability to make decisions and implement solutions they feel are in their respective best interests. Otherwise, the progress of broadband-influenced economic development will be seriously disrupted.”

Looking at the spasms incumbents are having just because the FCC wants to hold a discussion on broadband reclassification, it’s not just economic development we need to worry about. We need to turn more of the broadband discussion over to local markets because they seem to be the only ones able to deliver the future. Just ask Chattanooga, Wilson, and Santa Monica.

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst and Co-Director of Communities United for Broadband and was recently named one of Huffington Post’s 16 Tech Titans on Twitter (@cjsettles).