The case for municipal broadband

Should cities be in the business of running telecommunications networks?

Some say yes, to address gaps in service being delivered by major national and regional carriers. Others, perhaps recalling the history of government telecom monopolies, are far less supportive.

Leverett, Massachusetts [population 2,000] is in the western part of the state, near the Five College area of Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, Mt. Holyoke and the University of Massachusetts. In 2011, the community began planning for municipally owned fibre to the home (FTTH) project.

A case study on Leverettnet was released by Susan Crawford at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society a little over a year ago. Although the project was supposed to be fully operational by December, 2014, a call into the town administrator’s office confirmed that they are still about 6 months away. Construction is said to be only 80% complete.

Strand Consult, based in Copenhagen, released a research note this morning with comments on the case for municipal FTTH in Leverett. The research note challenges the benefits that the community will receive.

In addition to challenging the specifics about the Leverett project, the note makes some important observations, highlighting that the “academic evidence between FTTH and economic growth is neither clear nor conclusive.”

Strand Consult observes that in “Denmark, a country that perennially scores high on the OECD’s study of broadband deployment, speed, adoption, and price that while 70% of the population have access to ultra-fast broadband, less than 2% subscribe.”

I noticed a tweet from the Economic Development office in Gravenhurst, Ontario that spoke of plans to deliver FTTH in 2015. Industry Canada is evaluating submissions for federal government support of rural and remote broadband projects and political parties are starting to develop their digital agendas to be included in campaign materials later this year.

These groups should all carefully – and critically – explore the case for municipal broadband.

As Strand Consult states, “Rather than consider FTTH as a magic bullet to save ailing communities, broadband should be evaluated as one variable in a complex equation for economic growth.”

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