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States Are Putting the Brakes on Municipal Broadband

Tennessee and North Carolina join other states in siding with cable and telecom companies, rather than allowing cities to provide affordable connectivity.
August 29, 2016

It’s hard enough to get an Internet connection in some parts of America. But recent court judgments could halt a series of initiatives that were slowly taking broadband to poor and remote areas.

Around the U.S., many cities have established their own broadband schemes to provide high-speed Internet access in areas where commercial providers have yet to offer a competitive service. These schemes, known as municipal broadband networks, typically supply Internet connections at lower prices than commercial offerings, and can stretch out to reach people living in the rural fringes of a city’s jurisdiction—places that may not prove cost-effective for telecom or cable companies to install infrastructure. Schemes currently exist across states including Colorado, Washington, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Los Angeles and San Francisco have both been investigating the concept as well.

But the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently ruled to uphold laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that will prevent municipal broadband networks from expanding. The dispute has been between the Federal Communications Commission, which has been in favor of allowing municipal broadband networks, and state legislators.

If you live on the edges of Wilson, North Carolina, you might have a hard time getting Internet access.

The ruling could signal larger problems for similar initiatives across the country, reports the New York Times. The decision isn’t being appealed by the FCC—the commission claims that to do so is an ineffective use of its resources. But proponents of municipal broadband networks had been looking to the FCC to tough out these state-level legal fights (20 other states also currently hinder municipal broadband networks), to ensure that underprivileged and remote communities were offered more opportunities to get online. Instead, some city officials will worry that cable and telecom companies could leverage the opportunity to prevent competition from more affordable providers.

Such a situation will only serve to exacerbate what the FCC has referred to in the past as a “persistent digital divide.” While broadband in urban areas continues to improve, infrastructure is still desperately lacking in many remote areas. Recently, locally owned coöperatives have been building out high-speed Internet infrastructure in rural parts of the country. But while effective for their own communities, such initiatives will not be able to connect the entire country.

What’s needed is a large-scale policy to close the digital divide. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has so far promised a future in which every home in the U.S. is connected to broadband by 2020. But according to the Wall Street Journal, experts aren’t convinced. They suggest that the price tag of such a project (she hasn’t said how much it will cost)—combined with uncertainty over which part of government would execute the plan, and whether or not Republicans would even back the required legislation—make it it an unlikely proposition. To date, Donald Trump has been quiet on the subject of broadband provision.

(Read more: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, “America’s Broadband Improves, Cementing a Persistent Digital Divide,” “Locally Owned Internet Is an Antidote for the Digital Divide,” “Technology and Inequality”)

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