Getting to a gig: Why cities need high-speed broadband now

While there are real disagreements in principle that divide Republicans and Democrats, one issue that should unite all of us is that next-generation broadband is essential, 21st century infrastructure. As mayors, we share the conviction that high-speed Internet will be a central catalyst for the success of our cities in the decades to come. It is this belief that propelled our cities to become “gigabit communities” before most Americans even knew what a gigabit was. 

Now we want to issue a challenge to leaders and policymakers across the country to work together to ensure every community can get to a gig. Many of the outcomes vital to thriving cities – from a healthy economy, to a good education, to innovative government – will depend on high-speed Internet in the 21stcentury.

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If we want every town and city to reap these rewards, it’s time to apply our collective effort to two key steps: the first is to clear away barriers to these gigabit opportunities; the second is for cities to begin directly collaborating to realize their gigabit aspirations.

Several years ago, key leaders in our cities understood that the Internet speeds then available to residents and businesses would not allow us to compete globally in the 21st century. In response, members of our communities came together and decided to do better. 

It wasn’t easy, but we were able to build city-owned Internet networks that now provide service citywide, including to homes, businesses, schools, universities and hospitals. These networks are based on fiber-optic cable, not the copper wire of the 20th century. This allows for speeds that can exceed a gigabit per second—up to 200 times faster than the average American’s Internet connection.

The subsequent wave of innovation has enriched our communities in new and exciting ways. Lafayette has become a sought-after location for the entertainment industry because our network can meet the demand for quick data transfer and post-production. And when Amazon was seeking a location for a new million square foot distribution center, Chattanooga’s gigabit Internet capacity made it the obvious choice. The facility now provides over 2000 full time jobs for local residents.

But no city can even think about a gig if it is restricted from doing so--either by the market or laws. In Lafayette, an incumbent Internet provider sued to prevent us from entering the market, and we had to take our case all the way to the Louisiana State Supreme Court to establish our right to build. Meanwhile, in 20 states across the country, state laws restrict the rights of municipalities to build and manage broadband networks.

We hope that these policies may soon change. In a recent speech, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler stated, “Too few markets have much if any competition at the kinds of speeds that qualify as truly next-generation. Copper wire won’t get the job done.”

We agree. To achieve the kind of competition that will promote truly next-generation networks built on fiber, we will need to clear away artificial impediments that restrict local telecommunications markets. That’s why Chattanooga recently joined another gigabit city – Wilson, North Carolina – in petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to lift these restrictive state laws.

While such intervention is welcome, cities can also make progress by collaborating with each other. Cities love to compete, but as mayors we also know from experience that cities can achieve great things when they work together, share best practices, and draw upon the collective skill sets of their leaders and innovators.

Because we believe so deeply in the imperative of collaboration to achieve the goal of gigabit Internet availability, both of our communities are joining a new bipartisan, city-to-city initiative called Next Century Cities. This effort will bring together many of our elected colleagues from communities around the country, and serve as a conduit for information exchange, collaboration, and the sharing of knowledge that can help other cities to achieve their goal of ensuring their residents and businesses have access to next-generation broadband.  

We took one path to achieve our gigabit goal, but there are others as well. Some cities may follow our approach and manage their own networks. Other cities may work with a private provider. No two cities are the same and the solutions that work in Chattanooga and Lafayette may not apply in all cases. But we all have something to learn from one another, and everything to gain from developing next-generation broadband infrastructure.  

Truly next-century broadband is not a partisan issue, nor is it a luxury—it is a necessity for every community across the country. Unfortunately, too few Americans enjoy the benefits of readily-available next-generation broadband Internet. We urge others to join with us and work together to assure a brighter, more competitive future for every city and town in America.

Durel has been Lafayette's mayor since 2004. Berke ha been Chattanooga's mayor since 2013.

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