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Editorial: Chattanooga’s municipal broadband is one way to fix internet woes

The reasons for Western New York’s slow internet speeds are as tangled as the wires that pile up behind a desktop computer, but it’s a problem that needs to be faced. We cannot secure our region’s economic future if we stay stuck on the wrong side of a national digital divide.

The statistics are striking: Buffalo ranked fifth-last in a national survey of internet speeds conducted by the technology firm Ookla.

Spectrum is the only service provider offering broadband throughout Buffalo and its advertised speeds don’t always jibe with what customers receive.

Verizon offers high-speed fiber connections in nine Erie County suburbs, as well as a basic internet package, for under $30 per month, that travels through older copper lines and maxes out at a lethargic 1 to 3 megabits per second.

There are 10 wired internet providers in Buffalo Niagara, but Spectrum and Verizon dominate the market. The broadband duopoly model – one cable provider and one telecommunications company – is typical of most major U.S. metropolitan areas. Less competition means consumers have little leverage.

Harvard Law School professor Susan Crawford is author of a 2018 book titled “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution – and Why America Might Miss It.” Crawford argues that the monopoly-like position of internet providers gives them little incentive to improve their product. Compared to other countries such as Japan and South Korea, Americans are stuck with slow speeds and high prices for internet.

“(Internet carriers are) looking for ways to make more money out of the same physical infrastructure, not for ways to expand that infrastructure,” she says.

One alternative to the lock that companies have is for municipalities to build and operate their own broadband networks. The prime example of this is Chattanooga. Tennessee’s fourth-largest city invested in a new fiber-optic network that came online in 2010. Residents can purchase broadband service from the city’s Electric Power Board starting at $58 per month (300 Mbps), or $68 (1,000 Mbps). The municipal broadband service has been cited as an economic catalyst for Chattanooga, which has rebranded itself as “Gig City.”

More than 80 cities and towns in the United States now have municipally owned broadband networks. The cable and telecom companies have tried to stop them, and in some places succeeded, but Chattanooga shows the possibilities.

Our region has made strides in attracting startups through 43North and the Innovation Center, among other projects. But having access to high-quality broadband pipelines would be a major leap forward in our ability to attract businesses here.

There would be obstacles to Buffalo or Erie County installing their own internet networks, starting with funding. Chattanooga paid for its fiber-optic project through a $169 million loan and a $111 million federal grant. Creative financing would have to be done here.

It would be nice if the free market could bring us faster internet at reasonable prices. But dominated as it is by so few companies, the market isn’t so free. That’s what makes it at least plausible to consider a public alternative.

Competition from a municipal enterprise, appropriately priced, could help make our region economically viable while inducing a wholesome response from the private sector companies. That makes municipal broadband worth exploring if we want our region’s business incubators to bear fruit.

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