Municipal Broadband – A Tool to Ease Internet Access Inequality in DC

Conor McGrath, MPA, Staff Writer Brief Policy Perspectives

In January, the White House rolled out a new initiative to promote expanded broadband internet access nationwide. Among the proposals was a strong position in favor of allowing local communities to build their own municipal broadband networks. The Federal Communications Commission backed the President’s proposal in March when it overruled state laws banning communities from creating their own broadband networks.  This was a huge win for cities such as Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina that already built their own networks that offer “gigabit” connections 10 to 100 times faster than what’s available in most parts of the country.  Now, with the full backing of the Federal government, momentum is growing across the country for more cities to build municipal broadband networks as a way to get disadvantaged residents online.

Despite having one of the fastest broadband networks in the country, DC residents pay more, on average, for broadband than any other state, and access lags considerably among the city’s low income residents. In 2013, the average cost for an internet connection in DC was $68 per month compared to the national average of $40. Furthermore, there are significant inequalities in the pricing of broadband service within the District. On a cost-per-megabit basis, residents of DC’s poorest wards pay 225% more than their neighbors in wealthier ones, often for slower service. Publically provided broadband can help alleviate these inequalities. Wilson, North Carolina is able to offer high speed broadband service to customers for $35 per month compared to $57 offered by Time Warner Cable.  

A municipal broadband network would be owned by the DC government; therefore, it would be easy to prioritize bringing service to disadvantaged parts of the city. Unlike most metropolitan areas, where the broadband infrastructure is often decades old, DC already has the DC-Community Action Network (DC-CAN), built with a $17 million grant from the federal government. This high-speed broadband network is focused on bringing faster internet connections to low-income communities. By 2015, the project delivered high-speed internet access to over 250 schools, community colleges, health centers, libraries, and nonprofits.

However, many experts believe DC-CAN is underutilized. As a “middle mile” broadband provider, DC-CAN is restricted from delivering service to individual houses or apartment buildings — that role must still be filled by a private company. This prohibition is by design.  In 1999, long before DC-CAN had been built, the city signed an agreement with Comcast to prevent the district from building any internet service that could compete with private providers.  

Even if DC could build a broadband network that was allowed to piggyback on DC-CAN, other challenges persist, particularly how to finance the network. Chattanooga, Tenn., the largest city to build have built a municipal broadband network so far, spent $330 million on the project.  Two-thirds of the money came from issuing bonds, while the federal government stepped in with a $111 million grant to cover the rest. It’s unclear if DC could finance a municipal broadband network without comparable federal assistance. 

The Administration’s efforts to promote municipal broadband are a good start that will benefit hundreds of cities around the country. DC is certainly in a better position than most to take advantage of this new, favorable climate. Issues concerning funding aside, a municipal broadband network has great potential to bring fast, affordable, and equitable internet access to households across the nation’s capital.

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