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Municipal broadband utilities can succeed, provide competition

On Tuesday, Fort Dodge will vote on whether to create a municipal telecom utility and possibly move into a future where it can create local Internet choice. The alternative is to settle for some of the lowest-rated Internet providers in the nation and hope that some other company will create the competition so strongly desired.

The big cable and telephone companies are trying to scare voters away from even considering the prospect, claiming that this vote could lead directly to a municipal network. Empirical evidence suggests a yes vote in November is the start of a longer process of deliberation.

Fifteen years ago, some 30 Iowa communities voted on whether to create a municipal telecom utility, wrestling with similar concerns about whether to take these matters into their own hands. In the end, around half of the communities decided to move forward. In some towns, that decision caught the attention of the monopoly cable and telephone companies and they improved their services enough that the town chose not to make any investment.

Waterloo was one of them. The city voted to create its telecom utility in 2004, but has been mostly quiet in the intervening years. Just a few months ago, the lack of competition spurred them to do a feasibility study to again consider what it will take to create local Internet choice.

Colorado has a similar requirement for a local referendum before building a municipal broadband network or partnership and 142 counties and municipalities have reclaimed local authority. Most have not yet settled on a next step. A few have started building a municipal network, with proposed pricing that looks pretty good compared to the pricing in markets without real competition. But most are working with local cooperatives or otherwise studying their options.

Prior to this vote, expect more opinion pieces, glossy mailers, and perhaps TV and radio ads trying to scare you away from upsetting the cable and telephone company applecart. These tactics are common when monopoly profits are threatened by local efforts to create competition.

Back in 2004, Cedar Falls was frequently called a failure. Not because it had failed, but because it was a threat to monopoly profits. Today, Cedar Falls has great connectivity – not just for Iowa but the for the nation. For more than 20 years, it has earned the trust of local businesses and residents – the vast majority of whom have chosen its services over rival firms.

Currently, Fort Dodge is stuck with two of the most loathed broadband companies in the United States. Consumer Reports puts Mediacom as the overall worst cable company providing Internet access in the nation. They received the lowest ranking in value, reliability, technical support, and customer service — and second worst in speed. Frontier is ranked even lower, barely above the satellite companies.

Fort Dodge can do better. That doesn’t just require a vote in November — it means some citizens and business leaders have to sacrifice some of their time and guide the process. Creating local Internet choice can benefit everyone except the monopolies. They know that and will fight hard to undermine competition every step of the way. Without a public mobilization, Fort Dodge could one of the communities that starts the process but loses interest along the way.

Christopher Mitchell directs the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute For Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minn.