This story was written by Keith Dawson for UBM DeusM’s community Web site Develop in the Cloud, sponsored by AT&T. It is archived here for informational purposes only because the Develop in the Cloud site is no more. This material is Copyright 2012 by UBM DeusM.

Location, Location, and Fiber

When trying to figure out where to live, be sure to take municipal broadband into consideration.

If you're shopping for a place to live and work, don't discount the importance of community-owned fiber to access the Internet.

For a developer, especially one who lives by the cloud, fast, reliable, and affordable Internet connectivity is not optional. When searching for a new base to work from, such a person might well include the quality of connectivity on a short list of desirable characteristics alongside features such as access to a university, a vibrant entrepreneurial scene, night life, and outdoor recreation.

The US makes a dismal showing internationally in its provision of Internet access for its citizens. By most accounts, for over a decade we have ranked somewhere between 15th and 20th among developed countries in the effectiveness of our broadband provisioning. The reasons are many: political, economic, and geographical. This is a big country and it costs a lot of money to string wires (or to provide wireless spectrum) to reach all corners of it. And the political and economic climate that has prevailed in the US for the last few decades favors market solutions to almost all problems, and deprecates government or collective solutions.

This market-based approach works wonderfully in many areas of course. Infrastructure is not one of them. Like building roads, providing for Internet access has attributes of a natural monopoly. Competition does not work to lower prices, because by the time a second player duplicates the roads (or the wires) that the first one has laid down, both begin losing money. And the third player just makes it worse again for everybody.

There are couple of approaches that work in other parts of the world to enable widespread access to fast Internet service at reasonable prices. One is structural separation: the owner of the wires may not provide higher-level services over them, and must rent access to the wires to all comers at fair and non-discriminatory prices. The other solution that works is community ownership of the wires.

In the last decade, more than 150 communities in the US have undertaken to build out city-wide cable or fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) broadband systems. The vast majority have succeeded despite fierce opposition by the existing telephone and cable companies in the courts, the state legislatures, and the marketplace. (Likewise, a century ago, private power networks fought relentlessly against the formation of the municipally owned public power companies that in this century are laying the community fiber.) This report (PDF) details the experiences of three such communities: Bristol, Virginia; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

These projects have kept communication costs down; enhanced the local economies; and resulted in the creation of hundreds to thousands of local jobs that, absent the muni fiber, would have ended up somewhere else. In Bristol you can get 110 x 20 Mbps connectivity for $170/mo. In Lafayette, 100 x 100 Mbps will cost you $200/mo., and in Chattanooga, $140. Chattanooga ("Gig City") offers a symmetrical gigabit connection for $350/mo.

If you're in the market for relocating, you could do worse than to start your search with this map of communities with publicly owned communications infrastructure.

I'll be writing more here about municipal fiber, and Chattanooga in particular, in the upcoming weeks.