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Communities Are Finally Taking Back Their Broadband Destiny from Big Telecom

"For a few years, we basically tracked every single city that was considering building its own network. Now, we’re struggling to keep up."

The dominant narrative about internet service in the US is that big telecom companies have secured monopolies all around the country, and there's little hope unless Google Fiber comes to save your town.

This isn't an entirely wrong sentiment—Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and others have created very favorable conditions for themselves—but it's also not the full story. In the fight for better broadband access and competition, ordinary Americans are finally winning.

More cities, towns, counties, and municipalities are building, or are considering building, their own high speed broadband networks. And many of these networks have been hugely successful, even though they've been faced with legal hurdles and public relations campaigns from incumbent providers.

"I can't explain how different it feels to me than a few years ago," Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance, told me. "For a few years, we basically tracked every single city that was considering building its own network. Now, we're struggling to keep up—we don't even know every city that's interested in doing this."

We're also beginning to see brand new models to bring new fiber investment into previously underserved communities. Sandy, Oregon became one of the first towns to start offering fiber internet without the help of a local power utility, and Madison, Wisconsin may become one of the first cities to build its own network and lease it to other operators.

Meanwhile, there are startup internet service providers such as Ting (Charlottesville, Virginia; Holly Springs, North Carolina; Westminster, Maryland) , Brooklyn Fiber, and Allo Communications (Lincoln, Nebraska) that are fearlessly competing with incumbent providers.

"Three years ago, it was common wisdom that it was hard to compete with Comcast and CenturyLink. I think that's less true now," Mitchell said. "If you can build a network that allows you to offer a high quality product with good customer service, you can compete with them."

Cities that are in states that have municipal broadband "barriers" have also found methods to circumvent the law. Nebraska law prevents cities from laying their own fiber, so Lincoln built a conduit system—the tubes that actually hold the fiber—and is leasing that space it to Allo Communications.

And politicians in states that have these laws are beginning to see pressure from constituents who want them overturned. The threat of a new bill that would have been favorable to big telecom in Kansas was met with widespread resistance from politicians and their constituents, and Tennessee lawmakers plan on introducing a bill that will overturn its barriers to municipal networks. Twenty-six communities in Colorado will vote Tuesday night to bypass a state law restricting municipal networks.

Finally, cities, towns, and cooperatives are learning that these networks aren't as much of a financial risk as they once were considered. Rural power co-ops have found themselves well positioned to build fiber networks into sparsely populated areas without losing money, which was deemed impossible by big telecom companies who refused to invest in places without high population density. Increasingly, these networks are being paid for with loans rather than federal government grants or taxpayer money, meaning the lenders see them as financially viable, long-term investments.

"When talking about rural areas, the co-ops already own the poles, so they can put fiber in the electric space," Mitchell said. "I think it's arguable we could bring fiber optics to the vast majority of people outside urban areas in the entire country with loans."