San Francisco, Seattle Tire of Comcast, Mull Building Citywide Fiber Networks

from the breaking-the-duopoly-logjam dept

It probably goes without saying that while improving in spots, American broadband isn’t much to write home about. Americans pay more money for slower service and worse customer support than a long list of developed countries. Some of that’s thanks to geography, but more of it’s due to a lack of competition. That lack of competition is, by proxy, thanks to our refusal to address the stranglehold these giant companies have over our federal and state regulators and lawmakers. Instead of fixing this problem, current regulators seem more interested in weakening deployment definitions to help industry pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

In a growing number of towns and cities, residents have increasingly pushed to either build their own broadband networks, or strike public/private partnerships to help improve service quality and availability. Instead of trying to make these efforts irrelevant by offering better service at lower rates, incumbent ISPs have focused on paying often clueless lawmakers to help pass protectionist bills restricting what locals can and can’t do with their own local infrastructure and taxpayer dollars. More than twenty states have now passed laws to this effect quite literally written by ISP lobbyists.

Both San Francisco and Seattle have considered building their own broadband networks in a quest to end this duopoly logjam. In Seattle, Mayoral Candidate Cary Moon is promising to build a citywide fiber network if elected, something lobbying spending indicates is making regional ISPs Comcast and CenturyLink nervous. And in San Francisco, the city is now promising to build the biggest municipal broadband network yet, with a new report (pdf) indicating the cost to connect every home and business in the city would be somewhere around $1.9 billion.

Unlike some projects where the city owns both the network and the service provided on top, San Francisco’s model would be open access — meaning any ISP — small or large — would be invited in to compete:

“Our approach is to create as much market competition as possible at both the dark fiber and lit services layers. In this approach, the City?s concessionaires would not enter the internet business, but rather would enable robust private sector competition.”

Back in 2009, an FCC study found that such open access models result in more competition and lower rates (pdf). But, overly-influenced by large ISPs terrified of competition, the FCC promptly put the study in a drawer and forgot about it. Isolated municipal broadband deployments still sometimes embrace the idea, however. Like in Ammon, Idaho, where the municipal network there lets consumers switch between multiple ISPs in a matter of seconds if they’re dissatisfied with their carrier. Open access was the model Google Fiber originally promised it would pursue with its own gigabit fiber build before promptly backpedaling.

Over at Wired, Harvard Law Professor Susan Crawford argues that the open access model provides a good balance to ISP worries that the government itself would somehow be a competitor incentivized to disadvantage private sector companies:

The city would not be in the business of competing with existing providers in this model, but would, instead, be providing basic infrastructure that any company could use?the connectivity equivalent of a city street grid. The cost to the public of borrowing the money to build this basic network?estimated at about $1.5 billion by CTC?would be significantly lowered by leasing revenue from advance arrangements with operators. The city would subsidize low-income residents wishing to subscribe for fiber services from those private operators. CTC sets forth a detailed timeline for getting all of this done.

What?s great about this suggestion is that it removes any political argument that the city is somehow undermining the private market for internet access services. At the same time, a dark fiber public-private partnership would dramatically lower the cost for the private market to do what it does best: directly serve customers in a competitive environment that, on its own, produces low costs and innovation.

Over the years big ISPs and their policy armies have worked tirelessly to demonize municipal broadband as inevitable taxpayer disasters. But again, municipal broadband isn’t a panacea; like any business plan it depends on the proposal and implementation. But neither is municipal broadband an automatic boondoggle, and those that adhere to this over-simplistic absolutist thinking often like to ignore a few things.

Like the fact that many of these networks struggle or fail because they’re immediately met with either lawsuits or massive disinformation efforts bankrolled by ISPs, designed to kill many of these efforts before they’ve even gotten their footing. Also ignored is the fact that taxpayers have already spent billions upon billions on incumbent ISPs that consistently engage in outright fraud and waste, leaving citizens on the financial hook for fiber upgrades promised but never deployed. Most ignored however is the fact that these towns and cities wouldn’t be considering such drastic measures if they were happy with existing broadband services.

Again, none of this is to say municipal broadband is a silver bullet, either. But it should be clear to anybody that has spent more than ten seconds dealing with Comcast or their local telco that the industry is broken, and it’s going to take some creativity to fix it. And whether to build and run a local broadband network should be left up to local residents, not ISP lobbyists and policy wonks, living half a world away, whose entire goal is simply to keep the dysfunctional but hugely profitable status quo intact.

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Comments on “San Francisco, Seattle Tire of Comcast, Mull Building Citywide Fiber Networks”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Yes, subsidies can lower costs for favored fascist "partners".

That truism is phrased above as: “dark fiber public-private partnership would dramatically lower the cost for the private market”.

Keeping “public-private partnership” OPEN would be policed how? With corporations behind ranks of lawyers and practically immune to contracts enforced as YOU have so many times stated about the ISPs? Just HOW are you going to prevent kickbacks for getting into the “partnership”? And any deal not get tangled up in court for a decade until meaningless, JUST LIKE you state with Comcast and Verizon? — And a dozen other problems that don’t change merely because some pointy-headed liberal now calls fascism “public-private partnership”.

What minion proposes is just extension and hiding of the key problems: too many rich people controlling politicians, and not enough of either type of criminal dragged from one of their multi-million houses and hung in the public square.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

If they want to do something useful, they should build out the last mile to 100% of all addresses in the city.

Put enough fiber in each home, business, etc to allow for multiple services, and run that fiber back to termination points owned and maintained by the city.

The city can then rent (a) space in the termination points to any and all who wish to provide service(s), (b) rent the last mile on demand to those companies.

Go further and create cabling corridors (above or below ground) where companies who wish to connect to these termination points can do so without even having to handle a one touch ready – build it to support dozens on different companies and let them run their own fiber to the termination points as they need. Charge a maintenance fee to keep the corridor working and up to spec.

Boom, you now have everything you need to have every company in the world as an ISP.

Of course, they will never do it. It actually costs money and requires effort. Cities are great at talking the talk, but rarely even bother to slip on the shoes and try to walk.

TKnarr (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Seattle and San Francisco have an advantage here: the presence of lots of companies whose entire business turns on connectivity to termination points (Internet exchanges and routing hubs), plus lots of companies who’re in the business of deploying fiber on a national scale (the companies who operate the backbones). Not that it’s hard for any city anywhere to get consultants with that same experience. I know a couple people off-hand with decades of experience deploying national networks, whether copper, fiber, wireless or any other tech you can dredge up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Go further and create cabling corridors (above or below ground) where companies who wish to connect to these termination points can do so

Of course, they will never do it. It actually costs money and requires effort. Cities are great at talking the talk, but rarely even bother to slip on the shoes and try to walk.

Cities are great at digging. Or if not, they still do a lot of it. Road tunnels, culverts, underground power and water… network conduit/cabling is a notable omission, proving they just don’t view it as critical infrastructure. Once they decide it is, they’ve got the people and equipment to do it.

When buying or renting a home, always ask about telecommunications access. Make sure the sellers know there’s demand.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Open access is nice, but they should charge the fk out of the big incumbents for initial connection, seeing as they have been subsidized relentlessly since the beginning, and have done nothing.

If incumbents have violated agreements, cities could refuse to sell to them until the debt is paid. They can’t do it just on spite. But the incumbents are unlikely to be competitive in any freeish market like this; if they leave these cities, let’s just call it a win.

Anonymous Coward says:

you mean there isn’t a law forbidding this already in place? how long will it be before there is then? just what obstacles are going to be put in place to stop this until a law can be put in place to stop it? as it is the most sensible thing to do, saving the user money, you can bet your ass that there will be all sorts of crap crawling out the woodwork now!! and every bit will be decrying that this type of venture is going to cause the next nuclear disaster, even mean the end of the world, all so as to keep Comcast ripping customers off and reaping a multitude of government funding with the sole intention of upping profits and lowering service!

Richard Bennett (profile) says:

Pants on fire

Speedtest Global Index ranks the US ninth in average download speed at 74.99 Mbps. The top 8 are Singapore, Hong Kong (SAR), Iceland, South Korea, Romania, Macau (SAR), Sweden, and Switzerland. The SARs aren’t countries, so we’re actually in 7th place on a national level.

I wouldn’t spend a penny of taxpayer money for a higher ranking.

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