Could local cities provide equitable Internet access?

The OlympianMay 8, 2014 

COMCAST-TIMEWARNERCABLE/

The Time Warner Cable logo is displayed on the back of a van in New York in this February 13, 2014, file photo. Comcast Corp's merger with Time Warner Cable Inc would not deprive consumers of TV or broadband choices and would help the two companies compete against newcomers including Google Inc and Apple Inc in the video market, Comcast told U.S. regulators on April 8, 2014. REUTERS/Joshua Lott/Files

JOSHUA LOTT — REUTERS

The Federal Communications Commission will meet May 15 to consider new rules that would allow Internet service providers to charge premium rates to companies such as Google and Netflix for a guarantee that their content will reach consumers first.

If approved, individual consumers in the South Sound and other U.S. communities can expect slower speeds for smaller services, nonprofits and independent content creators. Why pay for the “HOT” lane, unless traffic is backed up on the main line?

While the FCC kowtows to lobbyists from big phone and cable companies that provide Internet access to most Americans, the European Parliament is going the opposite direction. It recently voted 534-25 to prohibit Internet service providers from blocking or slowing down any online content or service.

If the FCC votes to effectively end net neutrality, residents of the South Sound do have a potential alternative that is gaining traction elsewhere: turning to local Internet service providers who ride on municipally-owned fiber optic networks.

Here’s how it works: when a city opens up streets for other infrastructure work, such as sewer or water lines, it adds conduits of fiber optics. Or, the city installs hundreds of routers on outdoor utility poles to create a wireless mesh network.

The city then sells wholesale access to its broadband network to local Internet service providers who act as a middle man and provide fair and equitable — net neutral — Internet service to individual end users. It is also a possible new source of municipal revenue.

This is known as the Australian model. Municipalities, ports or public utility districts provide the infrastructure, which private sector ISPs use to provide service to customers.

Several Washington cities, ports and PUDs have opened up their networks to promote economic development or to extend broadband to under-served areas.

The Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet) is an organization of 10 public utility districts and a joint operating agency that attempts to provide statewide broadband services in rural areas. Headquartered in Tacoma, NoaNet currently has 1,831 fiber miles providing Internet access to more than 260,000 customers.

Some port authorities, mostly in Eastern Washington, are providing wholesale broadband services. The Port of Whitman County extends its infrastructure countywide and to a business park. The Port of Clarkston is currently building out fiber optic infrastructure.

Republican Sen. Trent Lott championed a 1996 bill that prohibited states from blocking any entity that provides telecommunications services. Despite that far-sighted bill, big provider lobbyists have persuaded 20 states to pass legislation making open access difficult. Fortunately, Washington state is not one of them.

Still, the city of Edmonds was forced to seek a state attorney general’s opinion in 2003 to offer broadband as a public service. In response to Rep. Jeff Morris of the 40th District, the attorney general said “First-class and code cities and charter counties may offer telecommunications services to their residents to the extent not specifically barred by state statute.”

Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater have all laid fiber optics in city-owned conduits covering varying proportions of each jurisdiction, which they use primarily for internal data and communications. And all three cities share access with the state Department of Transportation.

By extending fiber optic networks throughout the metro area, the three cities could open their infrastructure to private companies and, in turn, provide equitable Internet access to families wanting to Skype with loved ones across the country, or download a movie on family night.

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