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Friday, July 18, 2014 10:12 am

Getting connected

It’s a start. 

The Springfield City Council on July 1 approved extending the existing cable television franchise agreement with Comcast, in spite of the many complaints aldermen receive about the company’s poor service and/or high prices. Under the circumstances – those being that no viable alternative to Comcast exists – it was the only choice.

However, the Gang of Ten did take a baby step toward maybe someday possibly providing an alternative. They directed City Water, Light and Power staff to 1) “pursue opportunities to increase competition in the cable television and broadband services in the Springfield area with interested third-party partners” and 2) pursue cost-effective opportunities to directly deliver cable and broadband services where feasible, including WiFi downtown.

One naturally is excited at the prospect of the city doing for cable and broadband what Willis Spaulding did for water and electricity in the early 20th century, for reasons I laid out in my 2013 column “Unplugged.” As I noted then, such networks are being built on various scales and and by various means in cities across the country. Chattanooga, Tenn., is building the nation’s biggest municipally owned fiber-optic network that offers 1-gig service – 20 times faster than Comcast’s fastest connection speed. But small towns in illinois, which often overlooked by the big cablecos because they offer too-small subscriber bases to justify the high cost of wiring them.

Over in Monticello, a public agency partnership comprising the local public school district, the library, and city and county governments set up a new publicly owned fiber optic network. According to the Piatt County Journal, the partners share installation and annual maintenance costs; network operations are provided by a third party under contract, which will cost each partner a modest $5,000 - $10,000 per year. The result is much faster speeds (as much as 20x faster) at lower cost. And there is enough excess capacity that the Monticellans are considering leasing or selling excess capacity to a private firm to extend service to local businesses and homes. 

Up in Aurora, the city built a fiber-optic network financed in large part by federal emissions reduction grants (they use it to time traffic lights)Local schools, hospitals and libraries will be the first customers, but as is the case in Monticello, plans are afoot to sell ultra-high-speed broadband services to commercial users.

During discussions about renewing Comcast’s deal with the city’s, some aldermen lamented the lack of competition in the broadband field. There are sound economic reasons why utility service is best provided by monopolies. The question is, should the monopoly be public or private?
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