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In Response: Community-led broadband can end internet woes, eliminate need for subsidies

From the column: "There are good reasons for government to consider ownership."

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The Progressive Policy Institute’s Lindsay Mark Lewis claimed in an Aug. 10 column in the News Tribune that the government has no place building or operating broadband networks.

His information was outdated.

In fact, the only way many communities will get the internet service they need is through local government involvement.

The private sector Lewis wants communities to rely on has controlled broadband since its beginning. Residents and businesses have waited for years for internet service providers to provide the reliable, affordable, fast internet service they need. In communities like Duluth and others around the state, people are tired of waiting.

While I empathize with the pressures internet service providers (ISPs) face to make a quick profit, investors’ needs do not always align with communities’ needs. When broadband is designed, built, and operated as infrastructure that is critical to a community’s existence, it will fix decades of internet problems.

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There are good reasons for government to consider ownership.

Fiber optic networks do not need to be complex and expensive to operate, as Lewis asserted. I have municipal networks running successfully for more than 12 years with 99.995% uptime. It costs little to operate these networks.

Fiber itself is inexpensive. Prices have dropped so much in recent years that it is affordable for residential service.

If you design and construct the network as critical infrastructure and not for a quick return on investment, you automatically get a reliable and fast network. Digging and directional drilling are the most expensive parts of a project. That cost is the same whether you’re building infrastructure to last 50 years or 10. Do it once correctly, and it pays for itself.

Networks can meet the business needs of ISPs and their communities. It’s not either/or.

An almost instant response to any new approach is, “But ISPs won’t like it.” Incumbent providers often resist offering customers choice, because it means their geographic dominance in the area could end. On the other hand, an incumbent ISP with failing infrastructure quickly understands this new approach is more profitable than maintaining its own infrastructure. It’s possible to meet an ISP’s needs for an almost instant return on investment and complete control over its internet office technology and operations while ensuring no equipment sharing or outside interference.

At the same time, the community gets not only choice, competition, and improved internet service, but more reliable and secure city operations and utilities. A private network supports SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems, traffic management, fire, police, and other critical services.

Cities do not have to operate networks, nor do they need to become ISPs.

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Lewis pointed to municipal network financial failures as proof that government shouldn’t be involved. If he’d dug deeper to understand the why and how of failure and success, he may have come up with technical and financial models that work. Our experts did.

City, county, and township leaders are not broadband experts, but they are under pressure to fix their communities’ internet problems. And now with so much public money available, local leaders can take control. It’s essential these leaders have the data, detail, and understanding they need to make confident, informed decisions as they guide the investment of public funds. Our process eliminates as much political and financial risk as possible by giving elected officials go/no-go decisions along the way.

Handing over cash to ISPs without steps to ensure accountability and the efficient use of money is a recipe for political and financial failure. That old approach has left communities with internet problems even after public investment.

Billions of dollars in public investments have not fixed our internet problems. At best, the old approach kicked the can down the road and made it someone else’s problem. While a different approach is, well, different, it’s really quite simple:

  • Know exactly what infrastructure is already in your community. Know its condition, capacity, and who owns it. Do not depend on inaccurate broadband maps or speed tests.
  • Plan the upgrade in ways that make sense for the community. Look for opportunities to combine digging projects, such as installing fiber infrastructure during a water/sewer project or street improvements.
  • Understand the business and technical needs of ISPs.
  • Welcome ISPs to serve residents and businesses.
  • And get an agreement with at least one ISP before breaking ground. 

It is possible to nearly “future-proof” a community’s internet service and end the need for ongoing government subsidies. Tackle the challenges from a community’s perspective, and you can get reliable, affordable, and fast internet service for decades to come.
Kyle Moorhead is the founder and CEO of Hometown Fiber in Maple Grove, Minnesota.

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Kyle Moorhead

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