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As Cities Push For Their Own Broadband, Cable Firms Say Not So Fast

Provo, Utah, is one of three cities in which Google is rolling out its Google Fiber gigabit Internet and television service.
George Frey
Provo, Utah, is one of three cities in which Google is rolling out its Google Fiber gigabit Internet and television service.

Americans increasingly see decently fast Internet as more like a functioning sewer line than a luxury.

And a number of cities are trying to get into the Internet provider business, but laws in 19 states hamper those efforts. President Obama announced this week that he wants to lift those restrictions, and supporters of what is known as municipal broadband can't wait.

During a speech in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the president presented a plan promoting high-speed Internet for the country's more remote cities and towns. The executive director of Next Century Cities, a coalition promoting high-speed Internet, Deb Socia, says dependable high-speed broadband has become a social justice issue.

"This is about people, and people in communities who need resources for businesses, for e-government, for participatory democracy, for health care, for transportation, for education," she says. "Everything we do is related to our access to technology."

"Everything we do is related to our access to technology."

Anyone who's waited for a page to load or a stalled movie to resume wants faster Internet. But the major Internet service providers don't face much competition in many places, so they're not that motivated to upgrade. Faced with that, some towns have gotten into the Internet service business themselves.

"They started their municipal electric utility over a century ago, long before we had computers and toasters and microwave ovens, on the faith that this electricity thing was going to be important to the local economy," says Mikel Kline, who works for a municipal broadband company in Chanute, Kan. "Well today, the city fathers have that same vision about this broadband network."

Chanute's broadband network runs about 100 times faster than typical American Internet. Kline says it's given his remote Kansas town one of the fastest growing junior colleges in the country, and connected its hospital to distant specialists.

Kline, who's an engineer, says all of this was feasible because Chanute already ran its own electric utility.

"They already have line workers, they already have utility poles, the rights of way. The infrastructure is largely in place," he says.

But the cable industry has a warning for towns that don't have that ready-made infrastructure, says Brian Dietz of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

He says there have been "several examples where government-run networks have failed because they aren't able to compete effectively with private-run networks."

Dietz points to Provo, Utah, which spent more than $39 million building a fiber network. The system lost money, and the city wound up selling it to Google for $1. Dietz says Internet service providers have invested more than $230 billion nationwide building networks.

They've also been pretty successful at convincing state legislators that taxpayer-funded municipal broadband is a bad idea. Nineteen states now prohibit or at least discourage public involvement in the broadband business.

"We've got the largest city-wide, robust, gigabit network in the country," says Ken Hays, who works with the gigabit network serving Chattanooga, Tenn.

The city built it on its publicly owned electric utility, just like in Chanute. Chattanooga wants to expand service to outlying areas, where Internet speeds plunge, but it ran into one of those prohibitive state laws.

"Our electric utility actually petitioned the [Federal Communications Commission], along with Wilson, N.C., to ask the FCC to use their authority to override the legislatures," Hays says.

That's what Obama wants in all 19 states, but Internet service providers and some Republican members of Congress say the FCC has no authority to meddle in the way states regulate the Internet.

Copyright 2015 KCUR 89.3

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.