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Editorial: Fast internet could be a boon for Concord

Last modified: 3/15/2015 1:08:19 AM
Creating a truly high-speed, affordable municipal internet network could be a pipe dream – or it could be a pipeline to a more vibrant Concord with a booming economy and a growing population of young entrepreneurs and knowledge workers.

Success has been found in other cities, among them Chattanooga, Tenn., Wilson, N.C. and Cedar Falls, Iowa, whose achievement President Obama touted on a visit to that community earlier this year. At 1 gigabit per second, internet service in such places is 50 to 100 times faster than service provided by most cable or wireless carriers.

Comcast and Time Warner, the nation’s two largest cable providers, have not yet merged but that could be in the offing. The idea is not a dream made in heaven for consumers.

Last year, the companies were rivals for first place as America’s most hated company in a quarterly index put out by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Comcast came in just behind Time Warner. The two companies don’t compete on the same turf, but if they merge they never will. The result? Continued high prices and slow service.

Super-fast, cheap service can be a magnet for businesses, particularly those that need to upload information to the internet rather than just download. The average internet speed in America is 10 megabits per second, or Mbps, but upload speeds can be half that or less. In Concord, according to its website, Comcast’s fast “Blast” service for $59 per month is 50 Mbps down and 10 up. Standard service is half that. In cities where truly high-speed service is available from standard providers, it tends to be expensive: $300 per month for 500 Mbps service, half the speed and much more expensive than in many cities abroad, according to writer David Dyen of the New Republic.

Creating a high-speed municipal network helped Chattanooga draw a Volkswagen assembly plant and an Amazon distribution center. In the Concord-sized cities of Cedar Falls and Wilson, it helped the former attract a large commodity trading company, and the latter has saved residents an estimated $1 million per year while providing faster service.

Last week, the Federal Communications Commission, in a case that involved Wilson, issued two landmark rulings. One found internet service to be a public utility that can be regulated like one; the other pre-empted laws in 19 states that banned or limited community broadband service. The latter ruling paved the way for Wilson to expand its network beyond city limits to serve rural residents beneath the notice of the big players.

A community-owned cable network, by making prices cheaper or offering free wireless service in select areas, can help to close a digital divide that makes it hard for children from low-income households keep up with their peers. It can be used to attract employers and guide business growth to areas a city wants to develop. It can cause other providers to hold down or even lower prices by providing competition. But building a community-owned network, alone or in partnership with the private sector, is not without risk, and some cities have failed.

Growth in New Hampshire and in Concord is stalled, the economy just plodding along. Meanwhile, Concord offers great living just up the road from one of the nation’s major science and technology hubs. Super-fast broadband service could lure some of those employers, and their young, well-educated workers, north. It’s a gamble a city committee made up of policymakers, employers, economists, educators and technology savants should spend the next year exploring.


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