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article imageU.S. communities taking affordable broadband into their own hands

By Ryann Rasmussen     Nov 3, 2014 in Technology
Under the guidance and support of Next Century Cities, an organized effort is underway to revamp Internet infrastructure on a community level for the 21st century.
The Internet is an integral part of Americans’ daily lives, but across the country growing concern over poor quality of service has led to frustrations and calls for reform. Recent studies have shown that Americans pay nearly 50 percent more than other industrialized cities, and often those speeds are not even on the same level as counterparts in Asia, which has the fastest Internet speeds and the best pricing available.
Despite fears that Internet speed and pricing could lead to an increase in inequality across the country, a number of towns and cities are taking efforts into their own hands in the battle for digital accessibility.
Under the guidance and support of Next Century Cities, a bi-partisan coalition aiming to break through what many economists see as a near monopoly among large Internet service providers (ISP), there is an organized effort underway to revamp Internet infrastructure for the 21st century. The goal is to deliver gigabit-fiber Internet for residents while avoiding unaffordable costs.
American Communities Leading the Charge
Meeting in Santa Monica in late October, representatives from over 30 cities joined together to launch the campaign, which could be a litmus test in how the Internet can achieve democratic ideals that have been long spoken of by the nation’s tech leaders.
“Across the country, city leaders are hungry to deploy high-speed internet to transform their communities and connect residents to better jobs, better healthcare, and better education for their children,” Next Century Cities Executive Director Deb Socia said. “These mayors are rolling up their sleeves and getting the job done."
Leading the charge is Chattanooga, Tenn. and Mayor Andy Berke, where the city offered Internet speed 50 times the national average without large telecom companies charging exorbitant fees. Government officials bolstered the city’s fiber network and by doing so limited price hikes for customers, giving Chattanooga residents some of the fastest speeds available without seeing the monthly fees rise dramatically. And the service is publically owned, meaning residents won’t pay increased fees without public discussion.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in October announced a $190.5 million loan and grant program that would allow local rural areas in the country to develop their broadband and other advanced communications infrastructure. This is widely perceived as a positive move for America’s rural society, where Internet speeds lag behind major cities and much of the world.
Other American communities are also looking at following Chattanooga’s example.
“Cities and towns across the U.S. have already begun to make these changes and hundreds more are evaluating similar actions to provide better Internet service for their residents,” Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance Director Christopher Mitchell said.
Mitchell believes thousands of towns understand the goals, and while they are not yet committed to the push for faster Internet at affordable prices, they are thinking about joining the national effort.
Towns and cities that have joined the national campaign launched in Santa Monica include Chattanooga, Tenn., Lafayette, La., Santa Monica, Calif., Austin, Texas, Boston, Kansas City, Mo., Kansas City, Kan., Lexington, Ky., Portland, Ore., San Antonio, Texas and many more. Their goal is to use their authority to deliver better Internet service at affordable rates.
What’s Next for Community Broadband?
“Next Century Cities will engage with and assist communities in developing and deploying next-generation broadband Internet. Participating cities will work with each other to learn about what works – and what doesn’t – so that every community has access to information that can help them succeed. Cities will also work together to raise awareness of this important issue to all Americans,” the organization said in a press release.
While most observers believe these communities are encouraging government leaders to prioritize quality Internet access for everyone, they also recognize that mainstream ISPs will still play a role in the effort. The heart of the battle focuses on increasing healthy competition that aims to deliver quality service at affordable rates.
With nearly one-third of American households having a monopoly choice – meaning one ISP in their area – or none at all, this campaign could be a watershed moment for increasing the ability for more people to get online.
In the end, the communities believe these efforts support healthy competition among ISP’s and in general, municipalities pushing for localized networks can help bridge the digital divide that is beginning to emerge between wealthier Americans and those with lesser means.
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