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To communities that seize broadband initiative, benefits flow fast

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Christopher Mitchell
Christopher Mitchell is the director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis.
Photo Courtesy of Christopher Mitchell

The Twin Cities has slower and more expensive broadband Internet than the nearby town of Monticello.

The Twin Cities metro area has a population of 2.8 million and the highest density of people and businesses in the state. So why is our broadband Internet slower and more expensive than that enjoyed by Monticello, population 12,000?

Several years ago, the city of Monticello (45 miles northwest of Minneapolis) recognized the increasing importance of reliable, high speed, low cost broadband. After the incumbent telephone and cable companies declined to build the network city leaders had in mind, the community decided to build one itself. Now, FiberNet Monticello offers some of the best broadband packages available in the country, while the Twin Cities is lagging.

A new analysis by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance compares the available broadband speeds in Monticello to those available in the Twin Cities metro.

In the metro, as in most of the United States, broadband subscribers choose between DSL from the incumbent telephone company (Qwest) and cable broadband from the incumbent cable company (Comcast).

Monticello's offerings are faster at every price point, but Comcast appears to offer comparable downstream speeds in the highest tier of service. This apparent equivalence, however, is like comparing dirt roads with interstates. Both are roads that allow you to travel from point A to B, but they have fundamentally different characteristics in carrying capacity and reliability. For a variety of reasons, DSL and cable almost always fall short (and often, well short) of the advertised "up to" speeds, whereas full fiber networks regularly achieve the speeds they promise.

In the metro, cable offers most residents the fastest option for broadband, but only one choice of provider. The Monticello network not only created a new choice for its residents, it induced the incumbent telephone company to greatly upgrade its network to remain competitive. Now, Monticello residents can choose between two extremely fast broadband providers, as well as a cable internet connection. The community-owned network may have only been the third broadband option, but it fundamentally changed the market.

Prior to Monticello's investment, residents and small businesses had access only to asymmetrical broadband, as we do in the Twin Cities. This means the upstream capacity (when one sends a file to another) is much slower than the downstream capacity (when one receives a file). Monticello's network offers symmetrical speeds -- identical up and down speeds. For residents, this means high quality video chats, greater opportunities to share family videos, and better gaming.

For businesses, it means a whole new world. They are better able to interact with clients and customers. Businesses can take advantage of new cloud-based services to become much more efficient, garnering a tremendous competitive advantage during this economic downturn. And when downtime means lost dollars, local businesses can count on much higher reliability from a modern, locally operated network. Despite the many advantages Monticello's businesses gain from their network, they pay significantly less for their Internet access than businesses in the metro.

Buoyed by the success of Monticello and similar projects across the country, more communities are recognizing the need to build their own broadband infrastructure.

Tonka Connect, a project that may include 17 communities situated around Lake Minnetonka, is exploring approaches to build the network those communities need to thrive in the digital future. Rural Sibley County just completed a feasibility study for its fiber-to-the-farm project. Lake and Cook Counties are moving forward with projects boosted by the federal stimulus program.

They all recognize that big companies have little incentive to improve a system. Full fiber networks are expensive to build, and the return on investment takes years.

This is the major reason that the United States has dropped from being the No. 1 broadband country to between No. 14 and 32, depending on the study. The nation's fastest citywide network? Not New York. Not San Francisco, Silicon Valley, nor Seattle.

Chattanooga, Tenn.

That city built the nation's fastest network as part of a decades-long program to revitalize the community. As in Monticello, leaders recognized that the interests of their incumbent providers (AT&T and Comcast) were markedly different from the community's needs.

Monticello seized the broadband initiative in Minnesota. Communities in the metro have the same choice: Either bet their economic future on an out-of-state company or build economic self-reliance with a community network.

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Christopher Mitchell is the director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. He writes regularly at MuniNetworks.org.