Technical.ly Baltimore

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Mar. 13, 2013 11:30 am

North Baltimore Broadband Initiative seeks more service options from Comcast, Verizon

North Baltimore wants better broadband options. That might be just a bit difficult.

The 19 states in red have restrictions in place preventing municipalities from building their own broadband networks.

Several neighborhoods in North Baltimore, organized as the North Baltimore Broadband Initiative, are clamoring for more broadband Internet service options.

The Roland Park Civic League has spearheaded the initiative that started to come together about three weeks ago, reports North Baltimore Patch. As of now, the plan is to meet with representatives from Comcast and Verizon on March 14 at 7 p.m. at the Roland Park Presbyterian Church.

As Phil Spevak, president of the civic league, told Patch, “[R]esidents are concerned that the lack of competition is impacting prices and services,” making it difficult for people to purchase affordable, reliable broadband service.

But expanding options for broadband service in cities Baltimore’s size and larger, however, is something of an exercise in futility, as this map from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance shows.

Nearly 340 communities across the U.S. have publicly-owned fiber-optic or cable networks — that is, residents receive Internet service directly from the city, like they would their electricity. The biggest city to have such a set-up, though, is Chattanooga, Tenn., and with reason, as an article in the Atlantic Cities points out: big cities, like Philadelphia and Chicago, are better served by big telecommunications firms like AT&T and Comcast, and therefore don’t need city governments to build broadband networks.

Of course, it’s the telecom giants that also lobby to limit cities’ ability to build and provide broadband service over publicly-owned networks, as Time Warner and CenturyLink, for example, have done in North Carolina. Genuine competition among multiple broadband providers is effectively stifled.

There are broader implications for a place like Baltimore beyond just ensuring there are some mildly cheaper alternatives to Verizon and Comcast. For one, city CIO Chris Tonjes and director of the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology has been actively searching for ways to bring reliable, affordable broadband to neighborhoods without service or with limited service.

But the most sure-fire way to do that, according to Chris Mitchell, the director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, is to build a “network that’s owned by a local government or co-op.”

The other implication? Jobs, naturally.

For a city aching to be routinely included among the country’s list of startup hotbeds, an inexpensive, broad-reaching, fast broadband network certainly wouldn’t hurt. (While the Google Fiber network in Kansas City isn’t the same thing as the broadband network in Chattanooga, it’s achieving a similar result: luring startup and business owners.)

Encouraging signs have come from present Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski: he’s calling for all 50 states to have gigabit-speed broadband by 2015.

More important was Genachowski’s statement against Georgia’s Municipal Broadband Investment Act, a bill Orwellian in name that would have done more to prevent cities from offering broadband services. (The bill was voted down by the Georgia House of Representatives last week.)

Still, to expand broadband services in cities, pushing back against the telecommunications lobby in Washington, D.C., is the first step.

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Andrew Zaleski

Andrew Zaleski is Technically Baltimore's lead reporter. Before joining Technically Baltimore, he was digital media editor for Urbanite magazine. He graduated from Loyola University Maryland in May 2011.

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