Municipal broadband deployments are broadband Internet access services provided either fully or partially by local governments. Common connection technologies include unlicensed wireless (Wi-Fi, wireless mesh networks), licensed wireless (such as WiMAX), and fiber optic cable. Although many cities previously deployed Wi-Fi based solutions, municipal fiber-to-the-home networks are becoming more prominent because of increased demand for modern audio and video applications, which are increasing bandwidth requirements by 40% per annum.
Wireless public networks
Wireless public municipal broadband networks avoid sometimes unreliable hub and spoke distribution models and use mesh networking instead. This method involves relaying radio signals throughout the whole city via a series of access points or radio transmitters, each of which is connected to at least two other transmitters. Mesh networks provide reliable user connections and are also faster to build and less expensive to run than the hub and spoke configurations. Internet connections can also be secured through the addition of a wireless router to an existing wired connection – a convenient method for Internet access provision in small centralized areas. Although wireless routers are generally reliable, their occasional failure means no Internet availability in that centralized area. This is why companies now use mesh networking in preference to hub and spoke configurations.
Three basic models for the operation and funding of Wi-Fi networks have emerged:
- Networks designed solely for use by municipal services (fire, police, planners, engineers, libraries, etc.). Municipal funds are used to establish and run the network;
- Quasi-public networks for use by both municipal services and private users owned by the municipality but operated for profit by private companies ("private hot spots"). Such networks are funded by specially earmarked tax revenues then operated and maintained on a chargeable basis by private service providers;
- Private service providers using public property and rights of way for a fee. These allow for in-kind provision of private access to public rights of way to build-out and maintain private networks with a 'lease payment' or percentage of profits paid to the municipality.
Backhaul and wired infrastructure
In Stockholm, the city owned Stokab provides network infrastructure through dark fiber to several hundred service providers who provide various alternative services to end users. Reggefiber in the Netherlands performs a similar role. The Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency provides service at one network layer higher through a fiber network. This system's capacity is wholesaled to fifteen service providers who in turn provide retail services to the market. A final model is the provision of all layers of service, such as in Chaska, Minnesota, where the city has built and operates a Wi-Fi Internet network that provides email and web hosting applications. These different models involve different public-private partnership arrangements, and varying levels of opportunity for private sector competition.
Municipal broadband offers a number of advantages to consumers and to the economy. Such networks often provide high speed Internet access more cheaply than other current broadband service providers, if not for free. Different cities adopt different models according to their needs. In the case of St. Cloud, Florida's, a municipal broadband network offers free access to everyone as does Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Municipal broadband not only provide high speed Internet access for free it also lowers prices, creates competition, and boosts economic development. These advantages help keep prices down and networks functioning efficiently. Municipal broadband companies are faced with a constantly changing and highly competitive market with many operators. This keeps prices down and makes broadband affordable in rural and low-income communities. In a 2004 White House report, the President called for "universal, affordable access for broadband technology by the year 2007" and "plenty of technology choices when it comes to purchasing broadband".
Worker productivity can also increase as a result of municipal broadband by giving city officials such as police officers and firefighters remote access to information. Intelligent transport systems rely on fiber-optic infrastructure to network and manage thousands of traffic signals in large metropolitan areas every day. Building inspectors can issue reports and access networked data while conducting inspections. Public buildings in remote areas can be connected through Wi-Fi without the expense of fiber or private telecommunications contracts. Police officers can access security cameras, blueprints, criminal records and other necessary information. Networks can allow officers to show witnesses mug shots or "virtual lineups" at the scene of a crime, instead of at a police station. The Department of Homeland Security provides funding for cities that use municipal networks for these applications.
Not only does municipal broadband help public servants with their jobs, it also helps close the digital divide. Such services help bridge the gap by providing people with public access to the Internet. This allows low income families, travelers, and city officials to access important information without budgetary considerations in mind. The importance of free Internet access is based on information availability, for example students with no home based access are able to log on to the Internet using municipal broadband. Commentators hope that municipal broadband networks will make cities more attractive to businesses, especially high-tech and research companies, which are dependent on communication. Communication also enables small and home-based businesses to participate in international and regional commerce. Municipal broadband also allows companies to recruit new employees who can telecommute without physically relocating.
In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission endorsed municipal broadband as a "best practice" for bringing broadband to under served communities. The FCC also addressed the question of whether a municipality was an "entity" under the Telecommunications Act which mandates that "No State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service." 47 USC 253(a). The legal question revolved around whether a state could prevent a municipality, as its subordinate government body, from entering the telecommunication market. In the case of Missouri Municipal League v. Nixon, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that a municipality was not an entity under the Telecommunications Act and that a state could determine what authority its own subordinate jurisdictions had. Some cable companies have additionally viewed municipal broadband as an opportunity to expand their market. The Free Press, the Media Access Project, and the ACLU have all come out in favor of municipal broadband.
Governments have the advantage of being able to take a long term view and write off investments in municipal broadband over longer time periods. Private companies on the other hand, especially publicly traded ones, have to show profitability in a very short period. This indicates that governments are the best entities to create a broadband network—as infrastructure—then allow private companies to run it and deliver services such as IPTV, telephony and Internet access. In this way, governments are able to create a competitive environment where the network owner does not determine which services consumers can receive. "Structurally separation" or "functional separation" are terms often used to describe broadband as infrastructure that is open to all service providers. Governments may also be driven by their desire to lay down critical broadband infrastructure that serves a larger constituency made up of individuals, small businesses, schools, government entities and service providers. Building open-access local broadband networks can help with the infrastructure of a town and provide benefits to the townspeople that compensate for the costs involved. Having a publicly owned infrastructure provides a positive outcome in economic development as it attracts more locally owned businesses who can rely on high speed Internet connections to help their businesses. Such networks also deliver ubiquitous coverage in areas where private companies cannot own and operate public broadband networks. Enhanced services are included whereby townspeople can benefit from a greater diversity of value-added products. Security is a further issue with the need for a reliable integrated high-speed communications infrastructure at both a national, and a local level necessary for hospitals, schools, businesses etc. to provide a quick and large-scale responses to emergencies.
Harvard Law School Professor Professor Susan Crawford, argued in a New York Times opinion piece that lowering the barriers to the creation of "open municipal-level fiber networks" would help ensure the sort of Internet access that proponents of Net Neutrality rules argue for, even in the absence of those rules.
Phone companies and TV cable operators tend to oppose municipal broadband. They argue that municipal broadband would lead to the government monitoring of website usage through regulatory policy. In addition, opponents suggest that broadband usage should be private for a more secured freedom of speech and open networks, since this would promote competition and with it, innovation. Opponents posit that construction and implementation of municipal broadband would be costly. For example, the estimated municipal broadband system in Seattle, WA was $480 to $665 million. The opponents believe that the tax money should be spent on roads and landmarks instead of municipal broadband because, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, there is a greater need to solve problems of infrastructure in the U.S., and the government is the only investor. Opponents also claim that municipal broadband would take away environmental resources. They point to the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), a $4 billion project backed by the Obama Administration to install “115,000 miles of new or upgraded network miles” to connect 26,000 institutions. Cable operators state that the BTOP’s programs have led to environmental issues such as the “overbuilding of existing commercial plant[s].”
As for TV broadcasters and cable operators, they argue that they would be forced to give up part of their broadcasting spectrum to the government. Rural phone companies that provide broadband additionally say that they would be financially hurt since the services they provide would be taken over by the government. Incumbent telecommunications and cable companies wishing to maintain their dominance in the market have complained that government competition is unfair. Public providers have access to resources and the support of the FCC, but private providers will struggle to compete without access to public coffers and the backing of the government.
Additionally, internet usage such as streaming services and online gaming would not be affected positively or negatively by implementing broadband services. Therefore, the jump in internet service prices would not be advocated for by many tax payers.
Municipal broadband has become a controversy because of its previous implementations and legal restrictions on city broadband establishment and expensive lobbying efforts by incumbent ISPs to maintain and extend those restrictions.
Provo, Utah was one of the earliest cities to have municipal broadband, named iProvo, integrated in 2001. In 2004, the city took $39 million out in bonds to pay for the broadband's continual service. Yet iProvo's imagined success quickly died when it only had 10,000 subscribers in 2007 and was not able to self-sustain. In efforts to pay off the bonds, Provo started charging residents an extra $5.35 to their electric bills in 2011. iProvo continued to fail by losing all of its value and in 2013 it was sold to Google for only $1 while taxpayers were stuck paying the service's $40 million debt.
Other recent examples can be found in Longmont, Colorado; San Antonio, Texas; and Seattle, Washington. Statewide restrictions on municipal broadband, written with heavy lobbyist influence, have been passed in several states, including the 2012 ALEC bills introduced in South Carolina and Minnesota.
However, in 2015 the FCC acted to preempt state laws that restrict municipal broadband providers from extending their service beyond their current boundaries. The FCC grounded its ruling in Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which grants the FCC the authority to encourage the expansion of broadband by using "measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment." Tennessee, which is one of over 20 states that have laws restricting municipal broadband, sued to overturn the FCC's decision. If the FCC wins, many more doors could open for cities and power authorities in other states to expand their broadband networks.
Before the a decisive FCC ruling in 2015, many states attempted to ban municipal broadband, others have restricted it, and some heavily regulated it following business plans and studies. In 2007, three bills concerning the issue were pending before the U.S. Congress. One would have affirmed municipal broadband, one would have restricted it, and one would have prohibited it. The Community Broadband Act of 2007, created "to promote competition, to preserve the ability of local governments to provide broadband capability and services, and for other purposes", never became law.
In 2015, the FCC ruled that states could not forbid municipal broadband investment by public utilities even if subsidies would be given to services that competed with the private sector. The FCC reasoned that relying on private services that could only recover direct communications revenues was preventing "reasonable and timely deployment of high-speed internet access to all Americans". This ultimately became one of the National Broadband Plan’s major goals.
After Tennessee and North Carolina appealed, on August 10, 2016, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 did not necessarily give the FCC the right to prevent states from prohibiting municipal broadband.
In an effort to support U.S. federal government agencies attempting to deploy broadband services more widely, in a 2009 report the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation detailed cost estimates of providing "fiber optic connectivity to anchor institutions" in the United States. The institutions considered in the report were public schools, public libraries, hospitals and community colleges, with an estimated total cost of USD 5–10 billion.
On February 17, 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act became law in an effort to build the economy, assist in job creation and retention, and improve U.S. infrastructure. It allocated $4.7 billion to establish a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program as part of the National Telecommunications and Information Agency State Broadband Data and Development Grant Program. A portion of funding awards were allocated to extend and develop broadband services to reach rural and "underserved areas" as well as to improve broadband access for public safety agencies.
According to the Muni Wireless website, In February 2010, the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) awarded a $126.3 million grant to the Executive Office of the State of West Virginia to improve the state's broadband structure. That grant was part of the federal government's overall broadband stimulus to certain areas of the United States. With 2,400 miles of fiber, it is planned to improve the area's broadband connectivity and increase its overall speed in places like schools, government offices, public libraries, etc.
United States policy
The Dutch capital, Amsterdam has its own municipal broadband project called: “Citynet Amsterdam.” This project is a partnership between the city and private investors that provides fiber cables to 40,000 buildings in the city.
Different system models are more popular than others depending on the needs of the region. One example is "publicly run municipal network model" In this system, the local government installs and runs the broadband system. These systems are particularly common in Nordic countries.
Current status of municipal wireless networks
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- National Telecommunications and Information Administration
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- Wi-Fi in Inner Toronto, 2006
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- "Chattanooga's Gig: how one city's super-fast internet is driving a tech boom", The Guardian, UK, August 30, 2014
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- March 2009 List of cities with WiFi projects (MuniWireless)
- Map of municipal broadband networks in the United States
- Cybertelecom: Municipal Broadband
- Panel discussion with Google about their project for San Francisco
- MuniWireless.com: the portal for the latest news and information about municipal wireless broadband projects around the world with a comprehensive summary of projects, market research reports, and conferences; set up by Esme Vos in 2003, updated list of U.S. cities and counties with wireless networks
- W2i.com: a comprehensive best practices sharing portal that address all aspects of municipal wireless deployments including a searchable database of municipal deployments worldwide, videos, audios, expert zones addressing various aspects of deploying municipal wireless networks, expert blogs, daily headlines
- Wi-Fi in Inner Toronto
- CBC Newsl Earthlink shutting down Philadelphia Wi-Fi
- Vint Cerf Supports Municipal Broadband Networks
- Strategy Analytics: US Ranks 20th in Global Broadband Household Penetration
- Municipal Broadband Roadblocks A comprehensive list of the laws and regulations limiting different US states from implementing Municipal Broadband.