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Editorial: Concord should embrace municipal fiber optic network

Last modified: 5/13/2014 2:37:27 PM
The online world that most of us have come to depend upon for information, communication, commerce and entertainment is changing in ways that could leave Concord residents paying more for less.

In response, the city should prepare to create a municipal fiber- optic network of its own. That means that every time a city street is dug up and repaved, 
high-capacity fiber-optic cable should be installed. Compared to the cost of laying open and repaving a street, the cost of the cable is small.

Comcast, the internet service provider with a virtual monopoly on service in the city, is seeking to merge with Time Warner, the nation’s No. 2 internet provider. Comcast is No. 1.

The companies serve different geographic regions, so proponents of the merger claim prices won’t increase. The flip side of that, of course, is that prices won’t go down because the two companies won’t compete against each other for future business. The merger needs regulatory approval and may never happen. But other factors suggest the city should, as technology expert Susan Crawford suggests, see high-speed internet service as a basic utility like the provision of electricity or water.

Crawford is the author of the new book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Gilded Age.

“Truly high-speed wired internet access is as basic to innovation, economic growth, social communication and the country’s competitiveness as electricity was a century ago,” Crawford contends in the book, “but a limited number of Americans have access to it, many can’t afford it, and the country has handed control of it over to Comcast and a few other companies.”

That’s the situation in Concord.

In what some see as a more frightening development, the Federal Communications Commission may allow internet service providers to charge higher rates for faster service. That would spell the end of net neutrality, the principle that every content provider has equal access to eyeballs. Tier internet service and companies that transmit massive amounts of data – think Netflix – will have to pay more and charge customers more.

Cable companies have no real competition and thus no incentive to upgrade their networks. But internet service at 10 times the speed for an affordable price creates a powerful draw for business. Communities that lack such service will be left behind economically. That must not happen to the capital city. Instead, Concord should offer the fastest internet service available in the state.

Some 340 cities and towns have installed a municipal fiber-optic network. Typically they charge lower rates than for-profit competitors and in some cases, Cambridge and Amherst, Mass., Clearwater Beach, Fla., Binghamton, N.Y., Denver and Houston, for example, service is free in some or all parts of the city.

In most cases, service is provided by the local, municipally owned electric utility, alone or in partnership with an experienced internet provider. When that happened in Chatanooga, Tenn., the price of gigabit service fell from $300 per month to $70.

Concord does not have a municipally owned electric company, but it does have a municipal utility known for dependable service and a high-quality product at a fair price – its water department.

Who’s to say that it couldn’t someday provide internet service as well as water? All these developments bear watching. But in the meantime, the city is about to dig up Main Street and repave Loudon Road. When it does, it should lay down the cables that could eventually connect Concord to a future free of exorbitant cable bills.


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