City Wifi: Fast, Cheap, and No You Can't Have It

Because enjoying cute cat videos while sitting in your local park is socialism.

It's Friday afternoon in San Francisco and, to be honest, I'm sick of being in the office. So I've slipped out and headed over to Union Square Park, where I'm sitting on a bench watching Japanese tourists taking selfies on the ice rink. But before you call me a slacker, you should know I'm also online and working, courtesy of the free wireless internet service the city provides.

Since October, visitors to most San Francisco parks as well as a stretch of Market Street, the city's main business corridor, have been able to access the city's fast-growing municipal broadband network. City-owned networks have been gaining popularity nationwide as a way to bridge the digital divide between rich and poor, foster competition with cable companies, and provide high-speed internet in underserved areas. Last week, President Barack Obama talked them up as a way to promote "better products and cheaper prices." In Tuesday's state of the union speech, he pledged to bring the internet to "every community and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world."

But there's one big obstacle to all of this: the telecom industry and its friends in Congress.

For $70 a month, Chattanooga offers its residents internet service at 10 to 100 times the speed of what most ISPs provide their customers.

At least 19 states have passed laws limiting municipal and community broadband projects, typically at the behest of big internet service providers and their trade groups. The legislation ranges from outright bans to laws that limit public broadband to small towns or places where there's no other high-speed service available. The Federal Communications Commission may soon invalidate these laws, but not if Republicans in Congress can stop it. In July, GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee inserted into an appropriations bill an amendment that would strip the FCC of its authority over state municipal broadband regulations.

Some Republicans have branded municipal broadband as a form of socialism, because it uses public funds to compete with the private sector. They also say that local governments aren't tech-savvy enough to build and maintain their own networks. As an example, they often cite Utah's unfortunately named Utopia, a fiber-optic network funded by a consortium of 11 municipalities that loses millions annually. "When a state determines that municipalities should be limited in experimenting in the private broadband market, it is usually because the state had a good reason," Blackburn recently wrote in the Tennessean.

But another reason for the pushback may be the deep pockets of ISPs. Blackburn, for one, received $11,000 from Verizon Communications, her fifth-largest contributor during the 2013-2014 election cycle. Telecom utilities last year gave $5.3 million to congressional Republicans, and $3.4 million to Democrats.

Although Blackburn doesn't talk much about it, the Tennessee town of Chattanooga just so happens to host the nation's largest and most successful municipal broadband network. Chattanooga's power utility (and now internet provider) offers internet service to 160,000 households at speeds up to 1 gigabit per second—10 to 100 times faster than what's available in most of the country—at a mere $70 a month.

A Missouri GOP state legislator would make cities hold an election before creating a broadband network.

As the Guardian notes, it takes just 33 seconds to download a two-hour, high-definition movie in Chattanooga, compared with 25 minutes for the average US high-speed broadband household. The service has earned rave reviews and has even spawned a local tech boom. Neighboring communities now want to join the network but a state law prohibits it from growing beyond city utility line boundaries. (For more about community networks, read Clive Thompson's "How to Keep the NSA Out of Your Computer.")

Chattanooga's project got rolling after city leaders learned that the telecoms wouldn't be offering local service for a decade or more. Indeed, city networks are often built in places too small to attract the interest of the big telecom players—cities such as Lafayette, Louisiana; Wilson, North Carolina; and Longmont, Colorado, all of which have decided that high-speed internet is as essential to the economy as electricity, water, and sewer service.

For more on how municipal broadband helps fill gaps in America's shoddy internet service, check out the first minute of this explainer from Vox:

Most state laws restricting municipal broadband were passed between 1996 and 2004, a fast and furious time for broadband development. The tide began to turn the following year, when advocates fended off restrictions in about a dozen states. But the assault picked up again in 2011, when North Carolina passed a law making it harder for cities to create their own networks. South Carolina followed suit in 2012. This year, Missouri state representative Rocky Miller, a Republican, has proposed a bill that would make large towns and cities get voter approval before building municipal broadband—and bar them from using revenues from other town services to cover the costs. (Miller has received $4,700 from donors in the telecom services and equipment industries.)

Today, Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced the Community Broadband Act, a bill that would make it illegal for states to limit municipal broadband through regulations or state legislation.

"We are not going to stop, probably, until all of San Francisco is connected to the internet."

In California, where cities face no such restrictions, San Francisco is aggressively expanding its network. An ordinance passed last year requires the city to attempt to install its own fiber cables or conduits anytime a street is torn up. In the short term, leaders are talking about wiring the city's waterfront, all of Treasure Island, and other commercial corridors. "We are not going to stop, probably, until all of San Francisco is connected to the internet," says Ron Vinson, the city's chief marketing officer.

Like many cities, San Francisco already has a robust fiber network in place to serve government offices. Vinson believes that the $1.7 million that the city has spent to outfit its network with public wifi (not including a $600,000 grant from Google) is totally worth it. "There's absolutely no downside being able to provide access to the internet, whether you are parking your car or waiting for a MUNI bus," he says. "It's one of those fundamental things. We fill potholes, we clean the streets, and yes, now we provide wifi. And our citizens expect that."