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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 year.
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 a provision of all layers of service, such as in Chaska, Minnesota, where the city has built and operated 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, a municipal broadband network offers free access to everyone as does Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Municipal broadband not only provides 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 Susan P. 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.
The increasing prominence of municipal broadband has led to opposition. Critics argue that the construction and implementation of broadband service is an inappropriate use of public funds that can be invested elsewhere, and that on some occasions (such as EPB and iProvo), the high cost of maintaining the network is passed onto residents via either taxes or exorbitant rates, for services that may not necessarily meet the quality or reliability of a commercial ISP. In an op-ed, Larry Irving stated that "private sector ownership generally is more effective and efficient, promotes innovation, and helps assure freedom of speech and open networks". Trump administration FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly argued that governments were infringing on their residents' First Amendment rights via prohibitions on "hateful" or "threatening" speech in the acceptable usage policies for their broadband networks—even though these restrictions are general, boilerplate terms also used by commercial ISPs.
Incumbents typically lobby in favor of state-level legislation (often based on a model act drafted by the industry and distributed by the ALEC) that seek to frustrate the deployment or expansion of municipal broadband networks. These can include requiring that cities hold a referendum to seek approval, instituting regulatory burdens on the approval process or their operations (including requiring competing bids from private entities), restricting municipal broadband providers from expanding outside of their jurisdiction, restricting them to only being a wholesale provider for private entrants, prohibiting municipal broadband in cities above a certain population, and restricting access to utility poles (thus requiring underground digging, which can be costlier), among others. In April 2019, Broadband Now reported that 26 states had such laws.
The successful campaign to hold a referendum on municipal broadband in Fort Collins, Colorado was opposed by the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association (which included incumbent Comcast), who spent nearly $1 million on lobbying efforts. Groups backed by the Koch brothers, including the Internet Freedom Coalition, and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, have also been involved in lobbying efforts against municipal broadband projects.
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." A challenge to this was won by the states of Tennessee and North Carolina on August 10, 2016 in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 did not give the FCC the right to prevent states from prohibiting municipal broadband, on the grounds that the FCC could not reallocate power between a state and its subdivisions. The FCC declined to appeal.
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.
In 2010, the NTIA awarded a $126.3 million grant to the state of West Virginia to improve the state's broadband infrastructure, particularly for public facilities such as hospitals, libraries, and schools. However, a report from West Virginia's legislative auditor suggested that the state had misused the stimulus money, including having wasted an estimated $7.9–15 million on purchasing high-capacity Cisco routers that, in many cases, were also being installed in smaller facilities which did not require such extensive network capacity. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin established a task force to investigate the overspending. In January 2014, the NTIA rejected a proposal by the state to use the remaining $2.5 million (plus other funding, including credits from Cisco for having returned the oversized routers from earlier) to fund a middle mile network, for not reaching "programmatic requirements" and missing a deadline for its use.
United States policy
Examples from outside the United States
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.
The European Commission has made broadband internet access a priority as part of its "Europe 2020 Strategy"
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.
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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
- "Why a Tennessee town has the fastest internet", BBC News, September 2, 2014
- March 2009 List of cities with WiFi projects (MuniWireless)
- Map of municipal broadband networks in the United States
- Cybertelecom: Municipal Broadband
- 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
- Vint Cerf Supports Municipal Broadband Networks
- Municipal Broadband Roadblocks A comprehensive list of the laws and regulations limiting different US states from implementing Municipal Broadband.