Big Savings, New Jobs from Community-Owned Networks

We're all frustrated at rate hikes from phone and cable companies. Every year, it's either an outright increase or some new fee that has the same effect.

Now imagine being told that over the next five years, Comcast was going to raise the price of your Internet connection by over 800 percent. That's what the company told Martin County, Fla., a few years ago, aware that the region had few alternatives to turn to.

But Martin County recognized the danger in agreeing to extortionary prices and built its own network to connect schools, libraries, police and other community anchor institutions. The project is forecast to save the county $30 million over 20 years.

This is one of the many examples we at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance detailed in our fact sheet on the public savings community-owned networks bring.

Schools in rural Chanute, Kan., pay a mere $250 per location per month for local gigabit connections, allowing the school district and the local community college to take full advantage of modern technology. But most of the nation’s schools and libraries are having trouble getting the connections they need at a reasonable price. And these institutions face significant challenges in meeting future needs without busting their budgets.

Local businesses are often in the same situation as schools. Earlier this year, a TV station in Knoxville, Tenn., reported that some businesses chose to expand in nearby Chattanooga rather than in Knoxville. Why? Thanks to Chattanooga’s publicly owned network, its telecom prices are 8–10 times cheaper.

In Missouri, the Springfield-owned SpringNet saved over 400 jobs by providing services to Expedia’s local office when a national carrier could not meet its own promises or the company’s needs.

This example and others are noted in a second fact sheet, Community Broadband Creates Jobs.

The economic impact of community-owned networks goes beyond jobs. Several towns along Virginia's southern border reversed negative economic trends in part by building their own next-generation networks to transition to the digital economy after the availability of tobacco and manufacturing jobs declined.

To no one’s surprise, the big phone and cable companies don't like publicly owned networks. They want to remain the Internet’s gatekeepers — and don’t relish the role of bit player.

Community-owned networks don't just introduce new competition. They represent a larger danger to incumbent companies: the threat of a good example. No one would stomach another Time Warner Cable rate hike if a nearby city offered faster connections at lower prices.

For years, we at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance have worked with Free Press and others to oppose state legislation that prohibits community-owned networks. We believe decisions to create such networks should be made locally, not by states or D.C. But big cable companies, AT&T and the corporate-backed ALEC have already secured bans on municipal networks in 19 states.

Last year we stopped such legislation in Georgia, but a bill will likely be reintroduced in January. We’re expecting similar bills in other states as well. Now is a good time to make sure your elected officials know about the benefits of publicly owned networks and preserve the authority of local decision makers.

Christopher Mitchell is the director of telecommunications at commons initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis and tweets at @communitynets

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people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good