With internet providers ranking near the bottom of customer satisfaction surveys, seven in 10 Americans say their towns or communities should be allowed to build new internet networks that compete with large, established providers, according to new data from the Pew Research Center.
The latest findings add to a long-running battle over restrictions – often written by state legislatures and supported by telecom and cable companies – that prevent local governments from establishing homegrown rivals to ISPs such as AT&T or Charter. And, policy analysts say, the results underscore a gulf in attitudes about public infrastructure spending – though perhaps not the kind you may expect.
Substantial majorities of Democrats and Republicans back the ability of towns to build and sell their own internet plans to local residents, according to the study. Although conservatives are slightly more likely than liberals to say they are a bad idea, just 27 percent of Americans overall say local governments shouldn’t be able to offer competing service, Pew’s survey found.
Proponents of independent internet networks argue that a “public option” for internet access could help drive down the price of broadband and increase speeds. Opponents say the expense of building new networks represents an unacceptable financial risk for many local governments.
“Municipal broadband networks too often end up failing and costing taxpayers millions,” said USTelecom, a trade association representing internet providers and telecom companies.
Some public projects have resulted in high-profile failures, notably Burlington (Vt.) Telecom and a project in Utah plagued by delays and cost overruns.
But the movement to build public broadband has also led to successes. Long before Google Fiber came on the scene and began challenging incumbent ISPs, the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was competing aggressively with offers of download speeds up to 1 gigabit per second. In 2013, the city dropped its prices from $300 a month to $70 – and in 2015 opened up a new service tier of 10 Gbps.