There is nothing wrong – and perhaps a lot to recommend – in Grand Island’s exploration of a municipal broadband system. Many Americans agree that communities should be allowed to build new internet networks to compete with established providers, according to the Pew Research Center.
Grand Island Town Supervisor Nathan McMurray echoed a collective frustration among some residents when he labeled the town’s internet infrastructure as “poor.” Town officials used an app to measure speeds at Town Hall. The results were sluggish: as low as 5 to 10 megabits per second. Time Warner Cable said it was offering speeds of 50 mbps. The discrepancy between promise and apparent delivery prompted action.
The Town Board has unanimously agreed to participate in a $12,000 study on whether to build a broadband network that would run along a nearly 1-mile stretch of Baseline Road through the center of the island. The school district, although satisfied with its internet service through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, subsequently agreed to contribute $2,500 toward the study. The School Board, if it goes along, would add significant leverage for possible grant funding for a potential project.
The plan would not be to provide direct internet service to homes in the town, according to the supervisor. Instead, the town could create a “middle mile,” an independent broadband backbone, as News reporter Nancy A. Fischer described in a recent article. Other commercial entities could use it to provide internet service to homes.
It is a creative idea that could offer increased competition that, in turn, might result in higher quality at lower cost. The town contracted for internet with Time Warner Cable, later acquired by Charter Communications, which rebranded its cable provider as Spectrum. The company defends its practices and speeds.
Both Charter and Spectrum recently became the focus of a lawsuit by State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. The AG accused the companies of scheming to defraud New York customers by knowingly failing to produce promised internet speeds.
The inquiry by officials on Grand Island reflects growing bipartisan attention among Americans. The Washington Post reported majorities of Democrats and Republicans support the ability of towns to build and sell their own internet plans to local residents. Proponents believe that a “public option” for internet access could reduce the price of broadband and increase speeds. Opponents cite high costs of building networks and the financial risk for many local governments.
Even if the Grand Island study eventually leads nowhere, just the hint of a public option may help improve service. It is worth exploring.