How city governments can help make Net Neutrality a reality

Cable lobbyist-turned-FCC-Chairman Tom Wheeler can promise to override state laws prohibiting publicly owned ISPs, but it doesn't matter if all the big cities are locked into ten-year franchise agreements with cable and phone companies. As an Electronic Frontier Foundation editorial points out, US mayors can and should take steps to make municipal broadband a reality, putting competitive pressure on America's foot-dragging, worst-of-breed ISPs. Many cities are sitting on a gold-mine of "dark fiber" that can be lit up to provide blazing-fast connections, and even in places where state law prohibits municipal Internet service, there are loopholes, like the one that Chattanooga, TN used to light up a gigabit network that's 100 times faster than most Americans can get.

Unfortunately, many cities have faced serious barriers to their efforts to light up dark fiber or extend existing networks.Take Washington D.C., where the city's fiber is bound up in a non-compete contract with Comcast, keeping the network from serving businesses and residents.

San Francisco doesn't have the same kind of contractual barriers that D.C. has, but the city's network is still under-used. San Francisco's fiber connects important institutions like libraries, schools, public housing, and public wi-fi projects. However, according to Harvard University researcher Susan Crawford, San Francisco "has not yet cracked the nut of alternative community residential or business fiber access."

Here, too, San Francisco is not alone. Right now 89 U.S. cities provide residents with high-speed home Internet. And dozens of cities across the country have the infrastructure, such as dark fiber, to either offer high-speed broadband Internet to residents or lease out the fiber to new Internet access providers to bring more competition to the marketplace. So the infrastructure to provide municipal alternatives is there in many places – we just need the will and savvy to make it a reality that works.

That said, the most outrageous barrier is a legal one: state laws, promoted by powerful incumbent Internet access providers, that impede competition by imposing restrictions on cities' ability to grow broadband networks. Twenty states currently have laws that restrict or discourage municipalities and communities from building their own broadband networks.

Neutrality Begins At Home: What U.S. Mayors Can Do Right Now to Support a Neutral Internet
[April Glaser and Corynne McSherry/EFF]

(Image: Pink Over City Hall, Sergio Ruiz, CC-BY)