Erika Kosina: Alternatives to getting broadband internet in Nevada County
Editor’s note: This is the first of two discussion on alternative options to broadband internet service in rural communities. Catch part two of the series in the Sept. 23 edition of the Money Monday section.
Nevada County has been trying to get decent broadband service throughout our region for years. Many rural counties in our situation are fed up with the long wait, and are finding alternatives to privately owned Internet networks.
Municipal networks and cooperatives are an alternative to private networks, and they are gaining in popularity around the country.
Today’s internet landscape looks much like the age of railroad in the 1800s. A few private providers own all of the track (now the network) and have little motivation to expand into rural areas. The result in Nevada County is the same as it was back then: poor service for high prices.
However, as the internet becomes as essential to daily life as electricity, and bandwidth requirements increase exponentially each year, this model is no longer viable. Some municipalities are starting to think about Internet access as a public utility. They are exploring ways to provide Internet access in the same way as water or telephone service is provided. These publicly owned or managed Internet networks are known as municipal networks.
Municipal networks offer advantages
In the municipal network model, local governments or governments in partnership with private organizations provide broadband Internet services. These municipal networks can offer several advantages over private networks.
First, municipal networks are available to everyone in a given area, unlike private networks. Consumers who use a “net neutral” municipal network have more privacy and more freedom — as of 2017, user consent is no longer required for private Internet providers to collect, use and sell information about their customers’ habits. Private networks may also censor their customers and prioritize higher-paying customers over those who pay less. Finally, researchers at Harvard University, just confirmed that municipal broadband is less expensive than private networks for consumers.
According to their report, “Most community-owned fiber to the home (FTTH) networks charged less and offered prices that were clear and unchanging, whereas private Internet service providers (ISPs) typically charged initial low promotional or “teaser” rates that later sharply rose, usually after 12 months.”
Municipal networks are typically run by a group of elected officials where profit is not the motivation. The networks can be funded in a variety of ways. They may use private investment with public facilitation, like the Google Fiber project. In this model, the public sector encourages private companies to invest in the network and the local government agency runs it. Others, like the City of Davis, use public funding to execute a private network. In this model, the government owns the broadband infrastructure, but a private company runs it. A third option combines these two models, sharing investment, operation, and maintenance of the broadband network in different ways among public and private partners. Jointly-owned and democratically-controlled co-ops, like one in nearby Plumas County are yet another model, where neighbors unite voluntarily to meet common broadband needs.
Alternatives are popping up everywhere
As of January 2019, there were over 800 communities in the United States who have implemented an alternative to private networks. Five hundred of those communities are served by a municipal network and 300 are served by a cooperative. One hundred fifty of those communities are enjoying 1 gigabit Internet service or better. And at least 20 of those have a municipal network that delivers 10 gigabit service.
The Quincy/Portola region in Plumas County, less than 100 miles east of Nevada County, is one of the 334 communities in the U.S. served by a rural electric cooperative. Plumas Sierra Telecommunications worked with the Plumas County Office of Education, the Center of Economic Development, and California State University Chico to gather information about broadband needs in the community. They used grants from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act and the California Advanced Services Fund to construct a “middle-mile” 198-mile fiber optic network from Reno, Nevada north to Susanville, California and west to Quincy, California.
The Plumas Sierra network now serves schools, colleges, libraries, county offices, hospitals, the Herlong Army Depot, and other businesses throughout Plumas, Lassen and Sierra counties. They are continuing to expand the fiber optic network to businesses that request service.
Less that 100 miles in the other direction, the City of Davis is trying a different approach. They recently signed a 30-year agreement with a private company — Astound, also known as Wave Broadband — to bring private fiber-optic cable into the city through an existing city conduit. The network will serve Yolo County buildings, specific city buildings and well/pump sites, and it will connect to UC Davis.
While the city owns the conduit, Astound will be responsible for maintaining the network. Although the city council supports this plan, it did not garner unanimous support from the community. Some members of the public are concerned that once the city, the university, and certain commercial customers have been served, there will be little motivation to expand the service as a municipal broadband network beyond those customers.
Erika Kosina, who lives in Nevada City, is a communications consultant and writer for the Nevada County Tech Connection.
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