Amid the ups and downs of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing that remains constant is the need for communities to stay connected. But the stay-at-home, work-from-home and learn-from-home measures highlight a glaring gap in the availability and distribution of reliable high-speed internet networks. Many citizens and businesses still cannot access the online resources needed to maintain a sense of normalcy.
As the pandemic continues for a third year, filling this resource gap is essential for local governments and communities to thrive. The solution lies in the investment and ownership of fiber and wireless broadband by municipalities, utilities, power cooperatives and tribal governments. With access to high-speed fiber, everyone from residents to tourists to government entities can benefit from teleworking, accessing online education, delivering and accessing online services, using telehealth , take advantage of economic opportunities and stay connected.
Definition of Municipal Broadband
Municipal broadband is the Internet that local government, instead of for-profit companies, provides to residents and businesses. With internet access now necessary for everything from work to school to play, many see it as an essential service, like water, and therefore something local government should provide. Governments can increase the number of people and businesses with affordable Internet access.
Governments need to build broadband infrastructure with fiber optic cable to deliver internet as a service through municipalities, electric cooperatives, utilities and tribes. Fiber-based Internet is the most reliable and secure Internet option in the industry, with network speeds of up to 10 Gbps for residential areas and 100 Gbps for businesses. These speeds are significantly faster than traditional copper, Ethernet, DSL cable or satellite that many private Internet companies still use today.
The FCC’s threshold for “high-speed broadband” is download speeds of up to 25 Mbps and upload speeds of up to 3 Mbps. However, these speeds are not available to all Americans due to a lack of broadband infrastructure and high cost. More than 17% of Americans, or 57.23 million people, live in rural areas, many of which lack broadband infrastructure. Satellite Internet access is one of the only options available in these areas, but it can be slow and isn’t always affordable. For example, in the United States, the average monthly cost of satellite Internet service is $86.33; the average monthly price for fiber Internet service is $63.78.
Compare the price and speed of satellite internet from a private company versus fiber internet provided by a municipality, utility, power co-op, or tribal government to dig even deeper.
A typical satellite internet company lists one of its most affordable plans at 12 Mbps for $30, which works out to $2.50 per Mbps and 13 Mbps slower than the FCC’s threshold for fast internet. With fiber internet, that $30 could get 100 Mbps, which equals $0.30 per Mbps and is 75 Mbps faster than the FCC threshold.
The difference in price and speed is equally dramatic when comparing fiber internet with ADSL, Ethernet or cable. Optical speeds do not decrease as network demand increases, and signal strength does not degrade as quickly over distance as satellite, DSL, Ethernet or copper cable.
Benefits of Municipal Broadband
In addition to leveling the playing field for fast and affordable Internet access, municipal broadband provides many other benefits to a community. It also helps
- Keep taxpayers’ money local;
- Future-proofing infrastructure by creating the flexibility to provide additional services and meet customer demand;
- Reduce the cost of the Internet for residents and businesses;
- Create faster Internet speeds with greater bandwidth and simultaneous upload and download speeds.
These are just the outlines. Individuals, businesses and government entities have much more to gain.
Public Safety Benefits
Municipal broadband can increase public safety by providing faster, more reliable internet to police departments, fire stations and paramedics. With municipal fiber Internet, these entities can connect instantly without worrying about delays or problems transferring information. This allows them to respond to emergencies faster and more efficiently with better organized and readily available data.
Other public safety issues that municipal broadband improves include traffic signal management and traffic flow along key transportation corridors by enabling local and statewide intelligent transportation systems to send faster and real-time notifications.
The pandemic has proven that businesses need to be online to be relevant and survive. The latest data from the Census Bureau shows that in the third quarter of 2021, digital sales accounted for more than 20% of all gains in retail spending. Although e-commerce numbers in 2021 are lower than 2020, they are still above pre-pandemic levels.
Unfortunately, not all small business owners have access to a reliable network to get their business online. Recent surveys by the National Federation of Independent Business and Google found that about 8% – about 2 to 3 million – of American small businesses do not have access to high-speed Internet. Among those who do, the FCC’s current broadband benchmark speeds may be too slow to meet their internet speed needs, according to a 2021 study by the US Government Accountability Office. Having faster broadband means businesses can take advantage of e-commerce opportunities, mobile apps, and more sophisticated marketing tactics. It also means businesses can generally improve their website’s performance, encouraging organic growth.
Website functionality is key to improving website performance, and one of the most important factors in organic growth is page load speed. Municipal fiber optic infrastructure can level the playing field for small businesses, make the Internet more affordable, and ensure that all web pages run at the same speed and reliability.
Local governments can collect more sales tax revenue when local businesses thrive and the area becomes attractive to other businesses. According to Governor magazine, Chattanooga, Tennessee’s municipal broadband network is the fastest in the nation and is attracting developers, computer programmers and investors to the once manufacturing-heavy area.
The pandemic has made online classes and assignments more than an adjunct to in-person instruction. It made it the new normal, and it hasn’t gone away, even with most schools resuming in-person classes. Unfortunately, due to high costs and lack of development in some rural areas and disadvantaged communities, not all students have internet at home, causing those without it to fall behind those who do. ‘have. Additionally, many students have to share the Internet with other household members working from home, putting strain on already limited bandwidth.
Municipal broadband can help address this inequity by creating infrastructure that gives every household in the community equal access to affordable, reliable, and fast fiber optic Internet. It can help every student and teacher from kindergarten to middle school, including those who are homeschooled.
It can also support public library system. Municipal broadband is less expensive than private Internet services, giving libraries the ability to set up more public access computer stations and provide more online resources to the public.
Municipal broadband can help give disadvantaged communities the boost they need to start thriving. It can improve access to education for disadvantaged students and enable individuals to start businesses online or find jobs online.
Additionally, most social service agencies and health care providers have used virtual communication to stay connected with clients and patients, especially since the pandemic began. However, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, more than one in six people living in poverty do not have access to the Internet. Thus, the clientele for which many of these agencies were designed cannot access their services. Municipal broadband offers people living in poverty and disadvantaged communities a better chance to benefit from health care and social services. Even those who lack the tools to access municipal broadband from home can still enjoy its benefits at their local library branch.
Municipal Broadband Financing
Setting up a municipal fiber optic Internet infrastructure is no small feat. Yet the federal government has passed several laws that provide funding to local governments, including the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act (2020), the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) (2021), and the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act (2021).
Through these, local governments can access competitive grants for broadband infrastructure; adoption and deployment; and data, maps and plans. Subsidies are prioritized to unserved and underserved areas; anchor institutions such as schools, universities, libraries, healthcare providers and public safety entities; and other community support organizations and agencies.
John Honker is the President and CEO of Magellan Advisors. He can be contacted at [email protected]