Six Community Broadband Networks

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Digital Beat

Six Community Broadband Networks Demonstrate Diversity of Approaches to Connectivity ChallengesOne might think this is the moment for community broadband networks. The truth is, locally-directed networks have been serving their communities for a long, long time.

The first community broadband network was actually an add-on to the cable television operation in Glasgow, Kentucky, in the early 1990s. Over the following 30 years, the number and variety of municipal telecommunications networks have dramatically increased to at least 600 wired and countless wireless networks today.

In discussing his administration’s plans for broadband, President Joe Biden noted that municipal and cooperative networks should be favored because these providers face less pressure to turn profits and are more committed to serving entire communities. The Biden administration sees value in creating competition in underbuilt markets dominated by monopoly providers and recognizes that community-owned networks tend to drive down prices for high-speed internet service—even for those subscribers who choose to stick with the large incumbent providers.

MuniNetworks.org—the Institute for Local Self-Reliance clearinghouse of information about local government broadband policy—has published thousands of stories about municipal networks and conducted hundreds of interviews with those who have built, operated, or worked in the ecosystem. But for someone trying to get a sense of the range of municipal broadband approaches, there is no single document that encapsulates the variety of models.

In Six Community Broadband Networks Demonstrate Diversity of Approaches to Connectivity Challenges, we offer a taste of the variety.

Huntsville, Alabama, known as “Rocket City,” is the anchor of a metro population with nearly 500,000 people, an inordinate number of PhDs, and an impressive fiber network. Huntsville Utilities, owned by the city of Huntsville, serves Madison County with electricity, natural gas, and water. In 2016, the utility deployed a fiber network that served mostly those within the city’s boundaries.

Conway, Arkansas, with some 66,000 residents and 24,000 households, sits north of Little Rock. Its utility company, Conway Corp, has been the city’s electric utility for the past 90 years, offering cable and internet access since 1997. More than half of area businesses are Conway Corp telecommunications subscribers, as are nearly 3 out of 4 households.

Located 70 miles north of Orlando, Ocala, Florida, is a community of 60,000 people. Ocala’s journey started around 1995, when its municipal electric utility was using copper-based technology to monitor the health of its equipment. By self-provisioning broadband for the city rather than leasing lines from a cable or telephone company, the utility estimated it saved $1 million per year in the early 2000s

Do you know which city is Georgia’s best for remote work? Of the billion-plus square feet of carpet produced in the United States each year, about 70 percent of it comes from Dalton, Georgia. That’s why it is called “the Carpet Capital of the World.” But it was the weaving together of a different sort of fiber that allowed the city to also lay claim to being the Peach State’s Work-From-Home Capital.

Idaho may soon be one of the fastest-growing markets for a particular type of community broadband network: last-mile open access. Inspired in large part by the success of an innovative community, Ammon, many Idaho communities are considering investments to ensure that all their residents can choose from the various independent internet service providers that have chosen to compete on Ammon’s fiber network. This approach fits well with the small-government mindset of the Gem State: make basic public infrastructure investments to enable independent companies to compete in the market.

The public-private partnership model is bolstering high-speed internet access in southwestern New Hampshire. Sixteen Cheshire County communities have issued documents indicating their interest in partnering with a private internet service provider (ISP) to improve insufficient broadband connectivity.

This collection is a preview for a much larger compendium of community-led broadband case studies that will be released later this summer. The full report, while including explorations of some of the networks that have struggled, concentrates on the vast majority of community-led broadband networks which have succeeded, providing robust service where it had not been available before or providing competition for incumbent cable and telephone companies.

Communities seeking to create a more competitive broadband market and/or target low-income neighborhoods with high-quality, modestly priced service are increasingly building their own networks, whether in partnership with ISPs or on their own. Local governments considering this option have to do their homework to find appropriate consultants, vendors, business models, and more.

But as the communities profiled here demonstrate, there are many models and opportunities to improve internet access.


Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) in Minneapolis. Mitchell runs MuniNetworks.org, the comprehensive online clearinghouse of information about local government policies to improve Internet access. The interactive community broadband network map tracks more than 600 such networks. He also hosts audio and video shows, including Community Broadband Bits, Connect This!, and Building Local Power.

Sean Gonsalves is a Senior Reporter, Editor, and Researcher for ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative. Sean was a longtime reporter, columnist, and news editor with the Cape Cod Times, and nationally syndicated columnist in 22 newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, Kansas City Star, and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Washington Post and the International Herald-Tribune.

Jericho Casper is an Associate Broadband Researcher with ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative. She graduated with a Bachelor’s in Science from the University of Virginia’s Media Studies Department. Before working for ILSR, Jericho was Assistant Editor of Broadband Breakfast, a Washington D.C.-based telecommunications news outlet.

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