If Not Muni Networks, Then What?
The latest round of municipal network battles has quickly escalated to the federal level, with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler promising to challenge state laws prohibiting muni networks and Republicans in Congress trying to prevent his agency from interfering with state laws. (See Muni Utilities Take Gigabit Fight to FCC.)
This looks for the world like the latest chapter in what has been a decade-long battle between incumbent carriers and the cities, towns and rural areas they serve. But it's not.
A few things have changed since the first few rounds of the muni network wars.
First, many of these areas have seen what gigabit broadband services can do, courtesy of the broadband stimulus-funded buildouts, state projects, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's own gigabit challenge, Google Fiber Inc. and more. They've seen what EPB Fiber Optics of Chattanooga, Tenn., accomplished and they've also seen commercial service providers, led by AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), make gigabit promises as well. (See Chattanooga Rocks 1-Gig FTTH Service, Power Companies Promise Gigabit Broadband, Google Fiber Shifts Into High Gear).
But for under-served communities, watching gigabit speeds reach places such as Austin, Tex. -- an area already flowing over with tech business -- is a little like watching the circus train pass through town but never stop.
The second significant change has been in the US economy, which continues to flounder somewhat, due largely to major long-term job trends that haven't yet been addressed. Communities that once counted on manufacturing, for instance, are still seeking similar well-paying jobs for those who aren't college educated. The pervasive availability of goods and services online, layered on top of the rise of massive chain stores, has made it hard to impossible for local retail to survive. Other industries - publishing/printing, for example - have been dramatically impacted by the rise of the Internet as well.
At the same time, the rise of cloud computing and data storage/analytics has prompted competition for data centers and other similar facilities. Financial services, healthcare, education, retail, and many more industries are dependent on the availability not just of high-speed data, but of gigabit speeds.
And finally, the technology itself and some of the painful experiences of the past have led to a smarter approach to building fiber-optic networks to support these gigabit speeds. The common argument a decade ago was that cities didn't know how to run networks, but the experiences in Chattanooga and Bristol, Va., among others, has laid that thinking to rest.
When Rep. Martha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) launched the amendment to a House bill to keep the FCC from challenging state laws against muni networks, she waged the expected argument that states' rights shouldn't be violated, but she also mentioned the "vibrant communications marketplace" that didn't need interference from the feds. (See The Municipal Menace?.)
I'm wondering if the communities seeking help from EPB or Wilson Energy's Greenlight in North Carolina consider themselves to be part of a "vibrant communications marketplace." If incumbents are going to continue working to handicap those that would build gigabit networks where they don't yet exist, they need to think about what their answers to those under-served communities will be.
The need for gigabit networks is only going to increase. Simply trying to stalemate municipal efforts isn't going to change that. I personally think that's why Wheeler sees the need to engage the FCC in this process. Whether that's the right approach - or even if the Commission has that authority - I don't know.
But waiting for incumbents to get around to upgrading ageing copper networks in many areas seems a strategy already doomed to failure. These companies exist to make money, and if they could have done that building gigabit networks in smaller cities and towns, it would have happened by now. So if not a muni-backed network, then what?
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading