When President Obama urged in his State of the Union address that broadband Internet service be made available to all Americans, it was the 21st century equivalent of calling for a chicken in every pot. So much commerce, information, education and entertainment has moved online that communities can't afford to be left without high-speed connections. Nevertheless, many Republicans oppose one of the means Obama has proposed for expanding broadband: preempting the roughly 20 state laws that make it hard, if not impossible, for local governments to offer Internet services. There may be good reasons a municipal utility or local agency shouldn't try its hand at broadband service, a market that's prohibitively expensive to enter. But that decision should be made by local officials, not state lawmakers.
According to the White House, 99% of Americans can obtain some version of broadband, whether through a phone line, a cable modem or a mobile network. But almost half of rural America has no access to connections that offer at least 25 mbps — the kind of capacity needed for data-heavy online businesses and multiple high-quality video streams. And although such connections are more widely available in cities and suburbs, they typically come from only one provider per community.
Just as advances in microchip speed and hard drive capacity have led to more powerful software programs, faster broadband networks lead to more data-intensive applications and services. But the shortage of broadband competitors and the high cost of building networks in the United States have slowed the spread of the kind of ultra-high-speed services such as the ones found in much of Asia and northern Europe. The most notable exceptions have been in the handful of cities where Google has built ultra-high-speed networks, prompting the local phone and cable operators to upgrade.
Some local governments concluded that the only sure way to obtain an advanced broadband network was to build it themselves. Others added broadband service to fiber-optic networks used by municipal power companies for other purposes, such as meter reading. Still others have partnered with upstart broadband providers; New York City, for example, is leasing thousands of public pay-phone sites to a venture that will convert them to free, ultra-high-speed Wi-Fi hot spots. Los Angeles is pursuing its own public-private partnership with a broadband provider that would be granted access to light poles and other city assets.
Opponents of municipal broadband argue that many projects have been costly failures and that the ones that succeeded enjoy an unfair advantage over the cable and phone companies they're competing with. They're right about the spotty record, but that just proves any advantage a municipal utility may have isn't enough to guarantee that cities can compete effectively with entrenched cable and telephone companies. Regardless, the decision about whether a local agency should get into the broadband business should be left to the people who bear the risk — local officials and the people who elect them.