By Joanna Glasner, Wired News
02:00 AM Mar. 07, 2003 PT
For those willing to forego some sunny weather in return for a
speedy and reliable Internet connection, Tacoma, Washington, might
qualify as budget paradise.
For around $30 a month, city residents can choose among four cable
broadband providers. For another $25, they can get a standard cable
TV package with about 50 channels, with a choice of two providers,
the city-owned Click Network or AT&T Comcast.
"The prices are lower than they would be if you live in another
adjacent city where there is no competition," said Diane Lachel,
community relations manager for the Click Network, which is run
by Tacoma's electrical utility. She credits the competitive rates
to the city's decision in the late 1990s to build out a publicly
owned cable broadband network.
Although nearly five years have passed since Tacoma launched its
high-speed Internet service, advocates of public broadband say the
model is still in the early stages of gaining traction nationwide.
Frustrated by slow or spotty deployment of high-speed Internet
services by private telephone and cable companies, a growing number
of cities and counties are considering the possibility of constructing
their own networks. In most cases, services are operated through
the same public utility that currently provides electrical power.
"This is something that's much too critical to be left in
the hands of the private sector," said Edward Stern, a city
councilman in Poulsbo, Washington, who is pushing a plan to build
out a community-owned fiber network.
Publicly owned networks are particularly popular in the Pacific
Northwest, in part because the region's main electrical utility
already maintains a fiber infrastructure that can be used as a backbone
for local networks.
But the concept is by no means isolated to the Northwest. The list
of communities offering public high-speed access includes Glasgow,
Kentucky; Cedar Falls, Iowa; and Thomasville, Georgia, as well as
Typically, publicly owned networks charge between $25 and $30 a
month for speeds comparable to a standard cable modem or DSL broadband
service, about a third or half the price of private services.
According to the Washington D.C.-based American Public Power Association,
71 communities currently offer cable modem service, while 114 sell
broadband services through independent ISPs. Ron Lunt, APPA's director
of broadband services, expects that number to grow swiftly over
the next several years, fueled in part by a federal regulatory decision
that could dampen private broadband competition.
The new rule, announced by the Federal Communications Commission
in late February, won't require local phone companies to give competitors
access or discounted leasing rates for broadband infrastructure
such as fiber-optic networks that they build in the future.
Lunt believes the rule change will force many DSL providers that
currently offer services by leasing portions of the local phone
network to close down. With less competition in the commercial broadband
market, he expects more cities will consider entering the fray.
"In essence these communities will have to provide services
to themselves through their utilities." he said.
Supporters of the public model believe that it will be more feasible
for municipalities to fund community-wide broadband projects, due
to their cost and scale. Michael Bookey, a consultant for Pachena
Light and a public-broadband advocate, compares the rollout of fiber
broadband networks to the building of the nation's roads and highways.
"There really isn't an incentive for the telephone companies
or the cable companies to build fiber networks ubiquitously,"
he said. "I'm not picking on them. It's just that they're private
companies who have to earn money to pay investors."
The local phone companies and cable providers that currently provide
most residential broadband service, naturally, have a different
In the posh Silicon Valley enclave of Palo Alto, the local phone
service provider, SBC, opposed a city proposal to provide broadband
services to local residents. Fletcher Cook, an SBC spokesman, said
the company believes municipal broadband is a "flawed concept."
"Telecommunications is a volatile industry that requires enormous
financial investments and a long-term commitment," he said.
"That's why government attempts at telecommunications have
been shaky in the past."
APPA's Lunt believes municipal broadband may appeal more to sparsely
populated or less-affluent communities, where private providers
may see little potential for profit.
But even local officials who've supported municipal networks admit
they're not cheap. In Tacoma, Lachel estimates it cost $96 million
to build out the network to the majority of the city's 184,000 residents.
She said the network will eventually be used to deploy self-reading
meters for the city's public utility, as well as to deliver broadband
Currently, Lachel said, only about 10 percent of the 65,000 households
with access to Tacoma's Click Network pay for broadband service,
basically covering the cost of operating the network.
© 2003, Lycos, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Media Contact: Wolfgang Gruener, PR/Communications