Most Americans have relatively few options when it comes to broadband service. For some people, there's a cable company, probably Comcast, a carrier like AT&T, and maybe an independent or two. In many areas, there's only one choice.
Competition is so sparse it's no wonder the United States is stuck with service that's slower and pricier than comparable service in many European and Asian countries. On Thursday, the FCC took a big step towards righting this wrong.
Overshadowed in the headlines on net neutrality was a vote by the commission to override state laws that ban towns and cities from building their own broadband networks. You probably didn't even know that those laws existed in at least 19 states. But they do.
When, for example, Wilson, N.C., built its own broadband system, the big ISPs poured more than $1 million into the campaign coffers of the state's politicians, according to a report by Common Cause and the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR). In 2011, all that lobbying paid off, and the state legislature passed a bill making it nearly impossible for other communities to build their own broadband networks.
The roadblock is now gone. So what does that mean for you?
In the short run, probably nothing. It takes a couple of years to lay fiber and get the various permits needed for even a private provider to connect to homes and businesses. If a city chooses to go it alone, it could take even longer for local jurisdictions to make up their minds and figure out how to pay for it.
In the long run, however, the ruling will be very meaningful. The big ISPs want to hold on to their customers, and competition from Google, which is already bringing gigabit service to three cities and planning for many more, has them running scared. Now they'll have to contend with cities like Wilson and McMinnville, Ore., that are tired of waiting for the service they need.
The wave of the future is what the industry calls FTTH: fiber to the home. Fiber allows for speeds up to 1GB, which is roughly 50 to 100 times faster than the cable or DSL connections most of us use.
As the debate on net neutrality heated up during the last six months, a number of ISPs and telecom companies blustered, saying that if the FCC voted to regulate broadband and wireless service as utilities, they'd abandon plans to expand their networks. After President Obama intervened and it became likely that Net Neutrality would become the nation's policy, they backed off a bit, but it's likely they'll raise that straw man and sue to overturn the ruling. .
Is a municipally owned broadband network right for your community? That's a local decision, but it's worth noting that in areas where towns and cities already took that step, it worked well and brought high-speed service at modest prices.
I don't have to tell you how bad service from companies such as Comcast can be. Hopefully the threat of local competition will motivate the Comcasts, Verizons and AT&Ts of the world to do better. If not, your city now has the option to offer quality service without the big guys.