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Net Neutrality and Economic Development: Why Cities are Getting into the Wi-Fi Business

One of the Christmas presents I received is a Ring doorbell. It is a nifty little device that comprises a doorbell, camera and speaker. In an older house like mine, the doorbell does not always work, so to have a Ring doorbell that is Wi-Fi connected letting us know someone is at the door by ringing our doorbell and our cell phones is quite an advancement.

That is if you can get it to connect to your home Wi-Fi. (Do you know the definition of Wi-Fi*?). After three days of trying and replacing our router, I got it connected and learned that I had 19 devices connected to the router, which is, of course, connected to the internet.

Then, the federal government through the Federal Communication Commission eliminated an Obama-era policy of “net neutrality,” which means at its very basic that internet providers cannot charge more for the “road hogs” of the internet. Now they can. Am I a road hog with 19 devices? Is my Apple watch sending me over a data limit? This month I got a notice from my internet service provider that they were increasing my internet speed. Now I am paranoid. Will faster mean more data and if I am not a road hog now, will I be? Will Netflix be the death of me?

We will see how competition affects the market. In Houston, I can easily switch between Comcast/Xfinity vs. AT&T U-verse. But what about one of the less competitive areas or remote areas? One of our lawyers has less than quality service just west of Houston.

Municipal Wi-Fi

Mont Belvieu, a city I am proud to represent, is building a municipal internet service for the city because of the poor service its citizens receive. It takes financing, of course, and Mont Belvieu had to go to court to get approval of the bonds necessary to finance the project. Cases quoted in that litigation were from the turn of the 19th century debating whether electricity would become a necessary utility. How would a lack of internet affect your work or relaxation at home? But should a city be in the internet business? There are cities in the electricity business throughout Texas. Is it such a big step for internet service?

Apparently, there has been quite an effort in Colorado to bring municipal internet service and to bring it on a net neutrality basis. As reported in Gritpost, Fort Collins, Colorado, is building its own broadband internet service after a unanimous vote by its City Council. While Fort Collins about 164,000 residents, telecom interests spent more than $450,000 to campaign against the November 2017 ballot question and created a lobbying group, “Priorities First Fort Collins,” to run ads attacking the idea of a municipal broadband network. However, voters with a 57 percent margin of victory said yes to the ballot question. The campaign in favor of the question spent just $15,000.

At full capacity, the Fort Collins municipal broadband network will run at speeds of 1 gigabit per second, which is nearly ten times faster than the fastest speed currently offered by Comcast/Xfinity in Fort Collins, Gritpost reports. Fort Collins is following in the footsteps of Chattanooga, Tennessee (pop. 177,571), which established a 1 gigabit municipal broadband network in 2010 within its Electric Power Board (EPB) utility.

“In 2015, EPB became the first, and to date, only American ISP to make up to 10 Gig (10,000 mbps) internet speeds accessible to all of its residential and commercial customers as a standard offer,” the Chattanooga EPB said in a December 14, 2017, statement affirming its commitment to the principles of net neutrality.

Cities are not developing ISPs for the sake of protecting net neutrality alone. They are not ideological purists. Rather these cities are in the business of economic development and realize the need for speed when it comes to being digitally competitive.

Another Colorado city, Boulder, is pursuing a municipal broadband initiative, also intent on maintaining net neutrality. “The network will deliver a ‘net-neutral’ competitive unfettered data offering that does not impose caps or usage limits on one use of data over another (i.e., does not limit streaming or charge rates based on type of use),” a planning document reads. “All application providers (data, voice, video, cloud services) are equally able to provide their services, and consumers’ access to advanced data opens up the marketplace.”

Local governments bringing faster speeds without caps or usage limits for internet service? Government competing in the market place? Unfair advantage? Or, just leave me alone and let me watch the movie Bright (starring Will Smith who said the movie is a mix between Training Day and Lord of the Rings!).

*Wi-Fi is defined as a technology for wireless local area networking with devices based on the IEEE 802.11 standards. Wi-Fi is a trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

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