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GigaFight

When a sleepy Midwestern community tried to treat high-speed Internet like a public utility, commercial broadband giants spared no expense to win the Battle of the Bandwidth.

ONE DAY IN THE FALL OF 2004, Mike Simon was interrupted by a phone call that he still remembers well. The caller was a pollster, who asked a dozen or so questions related to the local government's plan to build a broadband network. The questions became increasingly annoying. Then came the kicker: "Should tax money be allowed to provide pornographic movies for residents?" the caller asked. "It was just blatantly a push poll," says Simon, a landlord and entrepreneur in a Chicago exurb called the Tri-Cities. "When I asked, ‘Who are you representing?' they just hung up."

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That pollster, it was clear, was part of the strong resistance that had mobilized against the community's broadband plan. The Tri-Cities, like hundreds of other cities and towns around the United States, had had difficulty getting high-speed, high-quality, competitive Internet service from the major providers. So, like other cities, it came up with a solution, and in the process aroused the attention of giants—the incumbent broadband providers SBC and Comcast.

The term "broadband" refers to high-capacity data networks, often made up of fiber-optic cables that run through underground pipes. The central nervous system of today's communications systems is built of these high-speed cables, which deliver everything from HBO and ESPN to phone calls, DSL, and cable Internet access. The core of that network has been in place for years, but many of the extremities extending to more distant communities have yet to be constructed. Companies that own the infrastructure have been making money in densely populated, upper-income areas where they can win lots of customers per mile of cable. But they've dragged their feet when it comes to reaching markets they consider less lucrative.

In the places they do serve, companies like BellSouth, Qwest, and the local phone companies are often essentially alone in the DSL or cable markets and charge fat, monopolistic fees. In Iowa, for instance, where Iowa Telecom has skimpy competition, users pay $169.95 for their monthly service, compared with a typical fee of $40 in New York City, where upward of six providers compete for high-speed customers. Half of rural households say they don't have high-speed Internet access because it's either unavailable or too expensive.

Yet even as the corporate leviathans have neglected outlying areas, they're waging fierce battles to prevent local governments from filling the gap. By the time the Tri-Cities fight was over, in late 2004, citizens like Simon were shocked by the hardball played by SBC and Comcast in staking out Tri-Cities turf. "This was the epitome of corporate greed," says Simon, "where you have big companies trying to put one over on the little people."

Founded more than 150 years ago along a scenic stretch of Illinois' Fox River, the Tri-Cities–Geneva, Batavia, and St. Charles–are in many ways the heart of the mythical American heartland. Affluent and Republican, they offer excellent schools, civic pride, safe streets lined with Victorian houses. When Batavia wanted a brick walkway along its riverfront, citizens volunteered eight years of weekends to lay one. The cities each run publicly owned electric utilities, and the locals boast about low rates and reliability.

That spirit of self-reliance inspired the local broadband effort that came to a head in 2003. Forty-five miles west of Chicago, the Tri-Cities (population 75,000) host several sizable employers like Suncast Corporation, Flinn Scientific, and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. But when it came to the info-superhighway, the cities were in the deep woods. Geneva's City Hall fielded almost daily complaints from people frustrated with slow Internet access. Small businesses were paying as much for T1 lines (which deliver data roughly at the speed of a cable modem) as they were paying for rent, and citizens were stuck trying to cram megabytes through dial-up connections. Being in the Midwest, people were familiar with the fate of 19th-century towns that were bypassed by railroads: "They just shriveled up and disappeared," says resident Annie Collins.

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