We've long talked about the more than 750 towns, cities, and counties that have responded to US broadband market failure by building their own broadband networks. We've also talked at length about how data has shown these networks often offer better service at lower, more transparent prices than their purely private sector counterparts, whose apathy has only grown in the wake of limited competition. And, of course, we've talked at great length about the 21 state laws giant ISPs have quite literally written and purchased in a bid to try and keep this phenomenon from taking root.
Those protectionist efforts aren't working all that well.
In states like Massachusetts, there are countless towns and cities that either only have the choice of expensive Comcast cable broadband, or antiquated Verizon DSL lines the company simply refuses to upgrade (despite countless billions in subsidies, regulatory perks, and tax breaks). After years of apathy from entrenched incumbents, these towns and cities have slowly but surely peeled off and begun building their own networks.
Like Alford, Massachusetts, population 486, which now has faster speeds than many cities after locals grew tired waiting for local incumbents. After city residents there decided to build their own fiber network, they're enamoured with the fact that the kids aren't angry when they come home for vacation:
"The 20-year-olds were home over the holidays, and we had no problem with the four of us [using the internet]," said Peter Puciloski, who is chairman of the town's Broadband Committee. "In the past, we would get warnings that we hit our monthly 50 gigs or something. But there are no limitations here."
Another town, Charlemont, Massachusetts, has been begging Comcast to deliver broadband for the better part of the last two decades. They too decided to build their own, faster (and uncapped) fiber network, in large part because residents felt that direct ownership would provide them greater control. It's all part of a quest by countless rural towns and cities to avoid the economic and cultural pitfalls of being connectivity backwaters in the information age:
"Part of what you want to conserve in small towns is the fact that there’s families. There’s multigenerational opportunities. That’s going away because of the lack of broadband. Young families aren’t coming out the same way, because they can’t make a living,” she said. “No town should be mostly populated by mostly 65-and-older folks. That’s not the richness of a rural community."
For decades now, ISP lobbyists, think tankers, consultants, and other hired policy tendrils have gone out of their way to demonize community broadband as a "perverse form of socialism," ignoring that this is a purely organic, democratic response to market failure. One that wouldn't be happening if the United States actually cared about fostering competition in broadband, or holding giant lumbering natural monopolies accountable for what should be obvious failures. These areas aren't getting into the broadband business because they think it's fun, they're doing it because the US broadband market is painfully, obviously broken.
You need a combination of competition and adult regulatory oversight to drive solutions to these broken markets. Instead, we've currently embraced federal policies that effectively rubber stamp every idiotic desire of giants like Comcast. We then stand around with a dumb look on our collective faces as US consumers pay some of the highest rates in the developed world for substandard service that is unevenly deployed. Community broadband isn't some mystical panacea that cures everything (and can certainly have pitfalls if business models are poorly designed), but when done properly it's a wonderful way to light a fire under the asses of some of the laziest, government-pampered, natural monopolies America has to offer.