In 2009, the FCC funded a Harvard study that concluded (pdf) that open access policies (letting multiple ISPs come in and compete over a central, core network) resulted in lower broadband prices and better service. Of course when the Obama FCC released its flimsy, politically timid “National Broadband Plan” back in 2010, this realization (not to mention an honest accounting of the sector’s limited competition) was nowhere to be found.
Since then, “open access” has become somewhat of a dirty word in US telecom, and even companies like Google Fiber — which originally promised to adhere to the concept on its own network before quietly backpedaling — are eager to pretend the idea doesn’t exist. But building core infrastructure (sometimes with government’s help, sometimes not), then forcing ISPs to come in and compete in layers remains a compelling idea America wants nothing to do with.
Well, most of America. Back in 2016, the city of Ammon, Idaho (population 16,500) decided to build an open access broadband network that let multiple private ISPs offer service to customers over city-owned fiber. The resulting competition has, several years later, resulted in (surprise), better, faster, and cheaper access to broadband. As a result, this city in Idaho now boasts better broadband infrastructure than most US “tech hubs” like San Francisco and Seattle, both of which have flirted with the idea but never followed through:
“If you were to ask me what the key component of Ammon is, I would say it’s a broadband infrastructure as a utility,” says Bruce Patterson, Ammon’s technology director and one of the key drivers behind the network. “We’ve just found a way to make it a true public infrastructure, like a road.”
The city of Ammon manages the network the same way it handles water services or road maintenance. “If we could simply come to a point as a nation where we would say internet infrastructure is essential and we’re going to make sure that everybody has access to it,” Patterson says, “that would be a huge step forward.”
Through software virtualization, users on the network are allowed to switch ISPs with just a few clicks. Don’t like prices or an ISP’s privacy or net neutrality practices? You just switch. You can start to see why giants like AT&T and Comcast aren’t particularly keen on this idea:
“By offering residents and businesses the option to own their own fiber, either paying up front (about $ 3,200) or $ 20 per month for 20 years, Ammon forces providers to compete for customers. There are eight local ISPs, and users can switch among them instantly without requiring a “truck roll” (a visit from the ISP to adapt hardware at the customer’s location), because Ammon uses software to “virtualize” the network.
To be clear community broadband isn’t some mystical panacea where this will inevitably happen every time a community gets involved. These efforts are like any other business model, and require a solid plan and good people involved if they’re going to succeed. The thing is, this is a decision that should be left up to towns and cities and their voters. Instead, we’ve let giants like AT&T and Comcast literally write the law in roughly 20 states banning your town or city from making up their own minds, preventing any exploration of creative alternatives to the status quo.
Huge swaths of the US government not only refuse to address the country’s broadband competition issues; many insist there is no problem. Instead, they embrace mindlessly eliminating oversight of giants like Comcast under the false premise this somehow results in better service. When communities frustrated by terrible service then try to do something about it, they run face first into protectionist laws literally written by telecom giants. People then stand around with a dumb look on their face, wondering why US broadband is aggressively mediocre and expensive. The answer? Corruption and regulatory capture.
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