Project Muni

The Thinker by Rodin

I have a new project of sorts: convince our city to construct a municipal network.

What’s a municipal network? “Munis” as they are sometimes called are publicly controlled Internet Service Providers. So rather than get Internet from Comcast or Time Warner, you might get it from your town or city instead, or more likely some legal entity chartered by your town or city.

Munis seem to be catching on. They tend to spring up in places that don’t have high-speed Internet, which means they are mostly more in rural areas. Some years back across the Connecticut River from us in Leverett, Massachusetts the citizens decided they were done with dialup. So they created LeverettNet. For $73.89 a month subscribers get a 1 gigabit per second true fiber Internet access to the home out in what is arguably the middle of nowhere. In my city across the river we already have high-speed Internet, and it’s called Comcast. For about $75/month you can get “up to” 60 megabits per second Internet to the home. (Comcast offers a good deal for the first year you would expect.) But there’s no true fiber to the home here; it’s stepped down to coaxial cable. Comcast doesn’t offer a 1-gigabit per second service like Leverett does, but you can buy 2 gigabits per second in some places of our city … for $299.99 a month. Ouch!

Like in most communities, Comcast is the only game in our community. There are plenty of communities mostly in the hill towns around here that are largely left to fend for themselves. Comcast doesn’t go there because it’s not profitable. There are fewer subscribers and the houses are further apart. The town of Leverett has only 1900 residents so they had to figure out how to do it themselves. In one sense though they were lucky. Amherst, Massachusetts is not too far away. They could get service there and extend it across the telephone polls to the town.

It’s too early to know if we will be successful in getting our city of 30,000 to build a muni. We haven’t formally petitioned the City Council yet. It seems kind of redundant since Comcast is available everywhere. But it’s the only game in town. Leverett across the river with a much more spread out population though has figured out it can deliver a service nearly seventeen times faster than Comcast’s for about the same price. That sounds … appealing!

So a group of us are organizing. Right now this involves mostly reaching out and research. On the face of it though there is a business case to be made for a city muni. Perhaps the best-known muni and one of the most controversial is one built for the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee against the strong wishes of Comcast. Its most popular service is the 100 megabits per second service, priced at $57.99 a month. This suggests that a muni should cost about a third less for similar service compared with Comcast.

It turns out that saving money is just one of the many reasons for communities to build munis. In our research we’ve uncovered a whole lot of other reasons. Here are just some:

  • Comcast is responsible to shareholders, so they have every incentive to bilk customers for all they can get. It’s not too hard since they are the sole provider. A public board though would oversee a muni. It would be not-for-profit and presumably accountable to its subscribers and our city government.
  • Comcast is “innovating” by doing away with Net Neutrality, although it claims it won’t slow down services for websites. But it certainly could, particularly if they think they could make a buck doing so. A muni would probably require Net Neutrality.
  • Comcast has no competition and thus no reason to lower prices but plenty of reasons to raise them. Verizon did introduce its FiOS service in a few neighborhoods but quickly learned it wasn’t profitable to do it citywide. They will make money in services that have fewer competitors, so they are concentrating on wireless access.
  • Comcast isn’t improving their network. Many of the telephone polls have their optical fiber on them, but not all of them and less so along stretches of road that are less populated. It’s all stepped down to coaxial cable at some point, but in places there is a lot of coaxial cable between your home and a fiber drop. There’s no reason for Comcast to improve their network because there’s no competition and doing so would lower profits anyhow.

I believe that high-speed Internet access is a requirement today. It is really a new utility, the same way power, gas and sewage are. To meet the needs of citizens in these communities, Internet service should be managed by some sort of governmental body. The private sector model is largely a failure. It has failed in the hill towns around here because the private sector won’t serve that market. It’s a failure also because you only have one choice in most markets.

It’s time. The Tennessee Valley Authority was created to bring electricity to Appalachia because the private sector wouldn’t. Massachusetts is making half-hearted efforts to subsidize high speed internet for the hill towns via a Wired West initiative, but it’s underfunded and mostly languishing.

One of the reasons Trump won the presidency in 2016 was because of the frustration of people in more rural communities. I’m sort of in this boat now. Here the economy has grown little if at all since the Great Recession. That’s is part of its charm to me. (I can actually see the stars at night again.) But it’s not too hard to see that a good part of the reason these communities are suffering is that they suffer from an unequal playing field. Cities with their natural higher densities are going to be profitable to serve so they will get robust high-speed Internet and maybe residents can choose from multiple providers.

In most cases these hill towns around here don’t have the money to create their own munis. Towns like Leverett found ways to do it through issuing bonds, and that’s probably how it will get built where I live if we can convince the City to sanction one. By having robust high-speed Internet out here in the more rural parts of the country at an affordable price, communities like mine can begin to seriously address the rural vs. urban divide, much the way the Tennessee Valley Authority brought Appalachia into the 20th century.

For the foreseeable future though not much in the way of resources will come from the federal government. So mostly we must roll our own, if we can figure out a way to do so. In the case of my small city I think it will encourage businesses and entrepreneurs to move here, where the cost of living is lower anyhow and where many natural beauties are literally just outside your door.

You can learn more about municipal networks at muninetworks.org. If like me you are frustrated by the lack or high cost of high-speed Internet maybe you should do what I am doing and rise up and demand it.

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