The Federal Communications Commission may have voted in December to repeal net neutrality rules, but some U.S. municipalities are still eager to find ways to enshrine net neutrality principles within city limits.
This week, the Fort Collins City Council voted to move ahead with a ballot measure approved by 57 percent of voters in November, which allowed, but did not require, the city council to establish a telecommunications utility to provide broadband services.
Specifically, the city voted this week to approve some of the first steps needed to install civic broadband. They voted to provide a $1.8 million loan to “support first year startup costs associated with recruiting and hiring personnel, consulting, equipment, and branding to support the initiative” and to make certain changes to the city code that will allow the city to become a telecommunications provider. The city council does have to meet again on January 16 for a second approval of the ordinances, but the first vote passed 7-0, and it is expected to pass again.
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The city of Fort Collins laid out a broadband business plan on its website, which “does not call for any restrictions on access, including uploads, downloads, delivery methods, or providers (email, Skype, Netflix, etc.).” The plan also notes that the city will develop additional policies concerning net neutrality and security.
The city projects that customers will be able to pay $70 per month for download speeds of 1 gigabyte per second and $50 for 50 megabytes per second once the network is complete, according to the Coloradoan. The network will take three to four years to build.
“We have a lot of high-tech companies [in Fort Collins] — Intel, Broadcom, and a number of others — so connectivity is an important part of the industries in our community,” Fort Collins mayor Wade Troxell told VentureBeat in a phone interview.
While municipality-owned broadband has been proposed as a solution to preserve net neutrality principles, interested municipalities face a number of barriers. In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that states had the right to restrict municipalities from establishing their own broadband. According to the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 19 states, including Colorado, have enacted barriers against municipalities looking to create their own broadband utility. Those barriers vary depending on the state — Texas, for example, prohibits municipalities and public power utilities from offering telecommunications services to the public.
Colorado prevents municipalities from constructing their own broadband unless citizens vote to opt out through a state law known as Senate Bill 152. Fort Collins voted to opt out of SB 152 in 2015. Approximately 100 cities and counties in Colorado have voted to opt out of SB 152 since it was enacted in 2005.
In addition to barriers enacted by states, many municipalities that wish to establish their own broadband face resistance from privately owned Internet Service Providers, who say that municipalities have an unfair advantage over private competitors. Fort Collins was no exception. A group called Priorities First Fort Collins, which received funding from a lobbying group that Comcast and other ISPs are members of, spent over $900,000 to try to block passage of the November ballot measure.
“I think a lot of their ads portrayed a lot of misinformation,” Troxell said. “They tried to suggest this was diverting money away from the roads, and other priorities in the community … it will support itself through the revenue generated by the broadband as a service.”
One of the best-known municipal broadband networks in the U.S. is the one installed by the city of Chattanooga in 2010. At the time, the city garnered national attention as the only city-wide network with speeds of up to 1 gigabyte per second. In December, EPB Chattanooga’s municipal broadband provider said that it would continue to adhere to net neutrality principles, despite the FCC vote.
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