With Internet providers ranking near the bottom of customer satisfaction surveys, seven-in-ten Americans say their towns or communities should be allowed to build new Internet networks that compete with large, established providers, according to new data from the Pew Research Center.
The latest findings add to a long-running battle over restrictions -- often written by state legislatures and supported by telecom and cable companies -- that prevent local governments from establishing homegrown rivals to ISPs such as AT&T or Charter. And, policy analysts say, the results underscore a gulf in attitudes about public infrastructure spending -- though perhaps not the kind you may expect.
Substantial majorities of Democrats and Republicans back the ability of towns to build and sell their own Internet plans to local residents, according to the study. Although conservatives are slightly more likely than liberals to say they are a bad idea, just 27 percent of Americans overall say local governments shouldn't be able to offer competing service, Pew's survey found. (The same study found that Americans largely oppose government subsidies for low-income Internet users, which is timely in light of a recent government decision.)
Proponents of independent Internet networks argue that a "public option" for Internet access could help drive down the price of broadband and increase speeds. Opponents say the expense of building new networks represents an unacceptable financial risk for many local governments.
"Municipal broadband networks too often end up failing and costing taxpayers millions," said USTelecom, a trade association representing Internet providers and telecom companies.
Some public projects have resulted in high-profile failures. In 2009, residents of Burlington, Vermont, learned that its mayor at the time, Bob Kiss, quietly used $17 million in city funds to prop up the local public broadband utility, Burlington Telecom. The utility is now in the process of being auctioned off as part of a negotiated settlement. Delays and cost overruns were also a feature of a public-sector broadband project in Utah.
But the movement to build public broadband has also led to successes. Long before Google Fiber came on the scene and began challenging incumbent ISPs, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was competing aggressively with offers of downloads speeds up to 1 gigabit per second. In 2013, the city dropped its prices from $300 a month to $70 -- and in 2015 opened up a new service tier of 10 Gbps. After relying primarily on bond money and declining to fund the project with a new city tax, Chattanooga turned its fiber network into what its manager has called a "great profit center."
Where they are allowed to, other towns have increasingly moved to build their own independent networks. For example, the government of Colorado Springs, Colorado, recently became the 100th jurisdiction in the state to vote to overcome the Colorado legislature's restrictions on municipal broadband, said Christopher Mitchell, a public broadband advocate at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis.
"In Colorado, we see liberal cities like Boulder, conservative cities like Colorado Springs, and many conservative counties putting, in some sense, their money where their mouth is," said Mitchell.
While Colorado law allows cities and towns to move forward with municipal broadband if enough residents vote to approve it, other states can be more restrictive. Chattanooga became part of a high-profile legal battle in 2015, when it asked the federal government to help it overcome restrictions put in place by Tennessee's legislature.
Under those rules, the city's Internet network was not allowed to grow to serve neighboring customers. Regulators at the Federal Communications Commission voted to supersede the state regulation, but a year later they were defeated when a federal court ruled the move unconstitutional.
Lawmakers in Congress lined up for and against the FCC's initial vote on a partisan basis, with Democrats siding with Chattanooga and Republicans siding against it. But the picture is different at the local level, where few partisan divisions exist over the issue, said Mitchell.
"The most striking thing is how out of touch Republicans in Washington, D.C., are from their base," he said. "I talk to Republicans at the local level regularly, especially in rural communities -- and they all realize they need the public option."