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EPB in the News

18 February 2021 · 3 min. read
Techdirt:

Chattanooga Built Its Own Broadband Network. Now It's The Top Ranked 'Work From Home' City In The US

From the build-it-and-they-will-come dept

Thu, Feb 18th 2021 4:53am — Karl Bode

PC Magazine recently unveiled their list of the best cities to work at home from. To make the list, the magazine examined affordable housing, the availability of fast gigabit broadband, reasonably priced internet connections in general, and the presence of employers with friendly work from home policies. At the top of the list? Chattanooga, Tennessee:

"Our number-one remote-working town in the US is Chattanooga, known as "Gig City," which rolled out a citywide fiber network in 2010. As we recounted in a 2018 story, Chattanooga has been pushing hard to attract tech workers and companies based on its affordable real estate, business-friendly administrations, and widely available broadband internet. In 2019, according to the Census, 6.8% of Hamilton County, TN residents worked from home, compared with 5.7% of all Americans."

One of the city's primary policies was to embrace community-run broadband, offering locals ultra-fast and affordable fiber via the local city's utility. It's an effort that incumbent broadband providers like Comcast first tried to strangle via state law, then attempted to destroy via lawsuit. Neither worked, and now Chattanooga residents have access to some of the fastest and most affordable broadband in the United States (the ISP won Consumer Reports' top ISP award in 2018), which has in turn helped drive business growth and employment in the city.

This is, it should be made clear, the kind of innovation and growth we've crippled by letting incumbent telecom giants like AT&T and Comcast not only carve out geographical monopolies, but also literally write state and federal telecom law. Both companies are predominately responsible for the 20 some odd state laws that hamstring (or ban outright) towns and cities looking to get into the broadband business. They've also spent the better part of twenty years funding a coalition of dollar-per-holler think tankers and academics who try (usually poorly) to smear such efforts.

This farmed opposition to community broadband is usually built on the flimsy premise that it's "unfair" for governments to compete with the private sector. Or that these efforts are inevitable "taxpayer boondoggles" (you're to ignore the billions we throw at giants like AT&T for absolutely nothing). Both arguments are intentionally false and misleading.

Cities like Chattanooga aren't getting into the costly business of building broadband networks because it's fun, they really want to spend the money, or they want to make Comcast and AT&T executives cry. They're doing it because of market failure. They're building their own networks because incumbent providers have heavily monopolized the sector, resulting in spotty upgrades, slow speeds, high prices, privacy violations, and dodgy customer service. And when cities have tried to buck this status quo, they're usually sued, misrepresented, bizarrely demonized, or legislatively hammered by state and federal governments in mindless thrall to monopolist campaign contributions.

That's not to say that community broadband is some mystical panacea that fixes every city's ills. Nor is it to suggest that every city has the financial and technical skills or resources to pull off a successful business plan. But community broadband is a useful tool in the toolbox, particularly when it comes to nudging government-pampered regional telecom monopolies out of their comfort zones. Community-owned ISPs also tend to be more responsive to the complaints of locals, because they are locals. It's ignorant and counterproductive to ban such options in a country where 42 million have no access to broadband and another 83 million only have the choice of one ISP. Yet it's still happening.

In Chattanooga, the city has been blocked from expanding its award-winning network because of a Comcast-backed law passed decades ago. A law that served no function outside of protecting entrenched monopoly revenues from disruption. Historically, efforts to get states to dismantle such dumb, protectionist restrictions have been glacial, but as the COVID pandemic illustrates how truly counterproductive such restrictions are in a world were broadband is utterly essential, you can feel awareness and consensus start to shift.

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