Behind every Internet connection is a network -- a great expanse of fiber-optics and copper, routers and servers. Building and maintaining these networks is expensive -- we're talking billions, if not trillions, of dollars -- which is why the U.S. has traditionally leaned on private industry to get it done.
That's not to say municipalities haven't tried, and occasionally succeeded, in building out their own networks. But for every success story like Chattanooga, Tennessee, there are dozens of publicly funded networks that either failed to launch or eventually fell into disrepair, like Provo, Utah.
Part of those failures can be chalked up to the aforementioned high cost of construction and maintenance. But another, more absurd challenge, has been regulatory hurdles local governments often face when attempting to connect their communities.
Currently, 20 states have laws on the books restricting or outright banning muni broadband networks, including California, Colorado, Texas, and Washington.
A spotlight was recently cast on these regulatory hurdles when Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, announced the Commission would explore preempting state laws prohibiting municipal broadband projects. As Wheeler wrote on the official FCC blog, "If the people, acting through their elected local governments, want to pursue competitive community broadband, they shouldn't be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don't want that competition."
It's a testament to the tangled mess that is broadband regulations that this seemingly obvious statement inspired heckles inside the Beltway. And as with every issue these days, the argument fell almost entirely along party lines. Democrats, for the most part, agreed with Chairman Wheeler.
Many Republicans, however, did not, with 11 Senate Republicans penning a letter to the Chairman stating his position showed "a lack of respect for states' rights." This Commission-vs.-sovereign-states complaint was also echoed by 61 of their fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives.
That normally free-market promoting Republicans are arguing against the free market when it comes to broadband shouldn't be all that surprising. Broadband takes big investment, but it also means big money for providers. And while I'm among those who believe private industry is best suited to build and maintain networks, I also find the states' rights argument fairly ridiculous. After all, who better to know what a community needs than a local government? If elected officials recognize a need for better broadband access in their state, shouldn't voters have the final say as to who gets to build and maintain its broadband networks?
There are good arguments to be made on both sides of the municipal broadband issue, but stopping community projects due to a misguided argument about states' rights isn't one of them. Every corner of the country deserves access to high-speed Internet. And even if municipal broadband projects have a history of failing more than succeeding, every community should have the opportunity to give it the good ol' college try.