Image: Flickr/ Savannah River Site
In light of the ongoing net neutrality battle, many people have begun looking to Google and its promise of high-speed fiber as a potential saving grace from companies that want to create an "internet fast lane." Well, the fact is, even without Google, many communities and cities throughout the country are already wired with fiber—they just don't let their residents use it.
The reasons vary by city, but in many cases, the reason you can't get gigabit internet speeds—without the threat of that service being provided by a company that wants to discriminate against certain types of traffic—is because of the giant telecom businesses that want to kill net neutrality in the first place.
Throughout the country, companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and Verizon have signed agreements with cities that prohibit local governments from becoming internet service providers and prohibit municipalities from selling or leasing their fiber to local startups who would compete with these huge corporations.
Because ISPs often double as cable and telephone companies, during contract negotiations with governments, they'll often offer incentives to the government—such as better or faster service, earlier access to (their company's) cable internet for residents, and the like—in exchange for a non-compete clause.
To be clear, these are often strictly local agreements between cities and cable giants.
In Washington DC, for instance, the country's first 100 Gbps fiber network has been available to nonprofit organizations since 2006—but not to any of the city's residents. During a re-negotiation with Comcast in 1999 in which the company threatened to cut off cable service to the city, Comcast agreed to provide some of its fiber access to the city for the government's "exclusive use."
"The 1999 agreement was conditioned in important ways," former Obama administration assistant and Harvard University researcher Susan Crawford wrote in a recent paper examining the city's fiber network. "First, the city agreed not to lease or sell the fiber. Second, the contract required that the city not 'engage in any activities or outcomes that would result in business competition between the District and Comcast or that may result in loss of business opportunity for Comcast.'"
Comcast never even made its fiber available to the city, but that agreement, and a future one with Verizon, has, in part, kept the city's DC-NET fiber network out of residents' homes.
“The intent was never to take the business away from Verizon or Comcast,” Anil Sharma, director of operations for DC-NET, told Washington City Paper last year. “Our target audience always was community anchor institutions.”
What happened in DC is not uncommon. According to MuniNetworks, a group that tracks community access to fiber nationwide, at least 20 states have laws or other regulatory barriers that make it illegal or difficult for communities to offer fiber access to their residents. Even in states where there are no official rules, non-compete agreements between government and big business are common.
These are the cities and towns where residents can access community fiber. Image: MuniNetworks
What happens then are so-called "middle-mile" projects, where government buildings, schools, and nonprofit groups can be wired up, but expanded access to consumers is met with stiff lobbying opposition and threats from larger ISPs.
"A full fiber-to-the-premises model, on the other hand, might attract the attention of the entire national communications industry and related industries," New America Foundation researchers wrote in a May report called "The Art of the Possible: An Overview of Public Broadband Options." "That is because the competition enabled by a high-capacity fiber-to-the-premises infrastructure would be perceived as a direct challenge to the interests of incumbent players in the current market structure."
There are, however, glimmers of hope.
Cities are beginning to see the importance of providing their residents with cheap, fast, and open broadband networks, and at least 89 cities and towns nationwide now offer fiber to their residents as a publicly owned utility. Patrick Lucey, one of the authors of the New America report, told me that the number of communities that actually offer fiber "doesn't capture the amount of conversations and attention that broadband infrastructure is getting."
Officials in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which offers gigabit fiber to more than 39,000 residents, said that they initially invested in fiber to "control their own destiny." Wilson, North Carolina, a city of 50,000 people, offers the fastest internet speeds in the entire state and has noticed a population growth and a marked increase in the number of businesses relocating to and forming in the city.
"A lot of these small communities have decided to make the decision to try to try to keep young people from moving away and have decided to invest in this," Lucey said. "It's not just about having broadband internet so you can watch Netflix, it's about making sure schools and first responders have the bandwidth capabilities they need. To have libraries and hospitals wired up and to give residents the chance to take advantage of it."
Fiber availability (from any company) for US residents. Image: US Broadband Map
Meanwhile, cities that are already wired up but don't have restrictive agreements with a major ISP are looking for ways to lease or sell it off to smaller, local ISPs—but, unfortunately, the business model appears elusive in many places. Despite the fact that this fiber often exists in the ground, it's expensive and cumbersome for a city—without the help of an ISP—to go the "last mile" to residents' homes unless it has already planned to do so (though dozens have decided to do it on their own anyway, and have had success).
San Francisco's average internet speeds don't even rank in the top 100 municipalities in the country, but, like many other places, most of the city is wired with municipal fiber that's used by government officials, police stations, and city colleges. In 2008, the city made some of that network available to low-rise public housing projects, but still doesn't offer fiber to its other residents.
"We've met with them several times over the past three years, but they can't figure out how to work with a local company," Alex Menendez, who helps run MonkeyBrains, a small ISP based in the city, told me. "They don't run a business and can't figure out how to sell it, how to price it. We would love to do fiber to the home, but it doesn't make sense for us to use the city's at the current pricing."
Menendez told me that, after paying what the city wants to charge, he'd have to sell fiber access to customers at $200 a month just to break even.
Instead, the company is trying a pilot program with the city to offer fiber to businesses in certain office buildings. The plan is to build an "island of fiber" in seven buildings in the city—but he doesn't see the company, or the city for that matter, offering up fiber to its residents.
It's not for a lack of interest. I asked him if more people have signed up since the FCC offered up its plan to create an internet "fast lane."
"It's definitely picked up. It's been a steady flow—we have more business than we're staffed for, and we have more business than we can do," he said. "These folks care about net neutrality, and our customers like being able to call a number and talk to someone who really controls a good size of the business."
Unfortunately, those people—and millions of others around the country—will have to settle for Internet speeds that are relatively run-of-the-mill, while tons of unused fiber sits beneath them.