While the nation's largest internet service providers have been making lots of noise recently, the country's fastest network has stayed quiet, just like the Tennessee town it services.
The southern city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, with a population of about 170,000, boasts internet speeds up to a whopping gigabit per second, thanks to a local municipal fiber internet network, and has since last year. That's the same speed as Google Fiber, only there's no legacy tech giant pumping technology into the project.
The city of Chattanooga and the publicly owned electric utility EPB did it by themselves.
Big telecom companies like AT&T and Comcast put off plans to outfit southeastern Tennessee with high-speed internet, essentially forcing the city to look for internet solutions elsewhere, Motherboard reports. This is actually a trend. Though Chattanooga's internet is notable for its blinding speed, many small communities around the country are similarly taking on high-speed internet without the help of big-name ISPs.
In fact, often the ISPs are holding these neglected communities back. In 2011 Longmont, Colorado, passed a ballot referendum that lifted a 2005 state law stopping municipalities from selling services that rely on publicly owned infrastructures, the Denver Post reported. Cable companies like Comcast originally pushed for the law in 2005 because they felt it was "unfair to let tax-supported entities compete with tax-paying businesses," the Post said.
More than 20 states still have laws like this one on the books, Motherboard reported. The FCC recently said it would help small communities get past these laws if it meant faster internet for them. This was in June.
Earlier this month, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) proposed an amendment that would make the FCC's move illegal. Almost every House Republican voted yes. Now the amendment is in the largely Democratic Senate where it's not likely to pass but still could, perhaps with a little help from big cable companies.
"Ultimately what it comes down to is these cable companies hate competition," said Chris Mitchell, the director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self Reliance.
As director, Mitchell watches over issues like municipal networks, net neutrality, and the consolidation of cable companies, advocating for the public. "It's not about [cable's] arguments so much as their ability to lobby very well," he said.
He says that both Republicans and Democrats receive a lot of money from cable companies every year. Blackburn herself has recieved five-figure donations from AT&T, Verizon, and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, says.
Of course the anti-municipal fiber network crowd does have arguments. A common one is that local government-backed fiber networks are often failures that put tax dollars at risk, which Mitchell says is factually inaccurate. The other is that it's unfair to allow private companies to compete with government-backed entities, which Mitchell agrees is worth debating.
Municipal fiber internet networks certainly don't fit in every community. They're expensive to build--the Washington Post says Chattanooga's cost $330 million--and a handful have failed. Mitchell says most governments don't really want to have to build and run their own networks, despite their quality and popularity. Ideally, he says, local governments across the nation could fund the construction of a fiber network and then partner with a third party to run the service. This is happening in several cities nationwide, and it works well, though the number is climbing slowly.
"The first reason a community builds a network tends to be jobs. It helps existing businesses and draws in new ones," Mitchell said. "Most of these laws were passed in 2004, 2005. People didn't think the internet was essential for business."
This is why for Mitchell and others who oppose Blackburn's amendment, the most important thing is giving the communities the choice of whether to pursue a network of their own or hand the keys over to Comcast and company.
"Localities are in the best position to decide the broadband needs of their own communities," Rep. José E. Serrano (D-New York) said in an email statement to Business Insider. He voted against the amendment in the House. "The FCC is poised to help these localities by overruling harmful state policies that prevent innovation and competition."
While the amendment isn't likely to make it past the Senate, which has a history of voting down proposals like Blackburn's, Mitchell knows the issue will remain even if the legislation doesn't.
"The fight with the FCC is something I think we're going to see for a while," he said.
We have reached out to Rep. Blackburn and will update this post if we hear back.
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