Almost five years ago, we wrote about a project in Burlington, Vermont to bring fiber optics
to residents there. The idea was that, rather than a traditional "municipally-owned" network, this would actually be owned by the residents themselves. The article focused on the work of economist Alan McAdams, who (it needs to be admitted) was the guy who not only sent me down the path of better understanding the economics of information over a dozen years ago, but also convinced me to start Techdirt in the first place. McAdams has been pushing for the idea that if the end users actually owned the network itself, you would end up with much greater broadband, in part because you might still end up with a single fiber network, but there would be significant competition of service providers on that network
. And, indeed, it appears that's where the Burlington fiber project has gone. A more recent case study
on the project suggests that, with a slow and deliberate pace, thousands of residents in Burlington now have access to the fiber network, and can choose their own ISP, if they want.
Tim Lee has now written about another example as well, where there's an effort underway in Ottawa (which is only about 170 miles from Burlington), to string up 400 homes with fiber, but where the individual home owners will pay for and own the "last mile" connection to their homes
. This is definitely a test on a small scale, but it's a similar situation to what McAdams has been pushing for all along. Let the customer own the connection itself, and then get to choose the service provider. In the Ottawa case, once again, service providers would no longer have to worry about wiring up your home (the most expensive part), but just need to offer service at various peering points, and each individual could choose who to get service from.
In this manner, you still get real competition, which is sorely lacking
in the telco arena, and you get the benefits of higher speed networks. It's not as crazy as it might sound, either. As Lee points out, the telephone company used to own not just the wiring in your house, but the actual telephone as well. Over the years, that's been pushed back. Now you own your own phone -- and the wiring inside your house. So is it so crazy to think that you should own the wires outside of your house out to the main network as well? There are still plenty of practical issues that need to be resolved -- and the initial economics may be a bit daunting for many (the idea of paying, say, $3,000, to own your own fiber drop may freak some people out). But, it's experiments like these that are a real step in the right direction towards adding real competition, rather than the faux duopoly we all deal with today.