Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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A version of this story was originally published by the National League of Cities. Read the original here, with the full version below.
There’s an overwhelming tendency among regular Americans to conflate the basic infrastructure which surrounds us with permanence. Whether it’s the garbage truck predictably rumbling down the street at the same time every week, the water flowing from the tap, or our Internet connection, we assume that the physical ties which bind us together will always be there. And that’s because it mostly has, especially for community owned and operated infrastructure. When utility services are owned and operated by communities, they are by definition maintained by people who live locally for people who live locally. It’s hard to be taken by surprise and left without essential services.
But the odds tilt in the other direction when such services are delivered by outside firms. We’re seeing the consequences of this for electricity users in the wake of the Texas grid disaster last winter (as well as coming rumblings of heat-caused outages this June), but it’s a problem that’s been around longer than that for basic service providers of all types, where bankruptcies can leave whole communities high and dry.
The same consequences hold true when those firms are Internet Service Providers (ISPs), beholden to interests outside of the cities and towns they serve. Tens of thousands of American households learned this very lesson last fall when AT&T announced it was leaving the DSL business and no longer making new connections to its aging infrastructure, even though those wires will continue to sit in the ground for decades to come. Buy a new house in this area, and if AT&T DSL was the only provider in town, and you’ve got few or no options.
Hidden among stories of small town decline are places like Tuttle, Oklahoma, a city of more than 7,000 which has continued to grow in defiance of the dominant narrative. Tuttle, located about 30 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, has experienced a “53 percent increase in residential growth since 1990," and within the next ten years, city officials expect Tuttle to nearly double in size.
However, connectivity wasn’t keeping pace with Tuttle’s growth. Most people were stuck with slow DSL or even slower fixed wireless Internet access. After existing providers demanded massive subsidies to connect the city, Tuttle decided in 2017 to build its own gigabit Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. By choosing municipal ownership, Tuttle City Council has ensured that all residents and businesses will have access to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity now and well into the future.
Public Ownership Solution to Poor Connectivity
After the city’s cable provider shut down ten years ago, many Tuttle residents were left with no access to high-speed broadband. “The local WISP [wireless Internet service provider] was the only option for most offering, at best, 3 Mbps speeds during non-peak times,” Tuttle City Manager Tim Young shared in an email. Some people in the city’s downtown also had access to slightly faster DSL from AT&T, but neither provider was upgrading or investing in its network.
The lack of fast, reliable broadband impacted the city’s ability to retain new residents. Young explained that newcomers would sometimes leave Tuttle after only two or three years because of poor connectivity.
For years, the city attempted to partner with private Internet access providers, including the incumbent WISP, to expand broadband access but to no avail. “No one was willing to serve the entire community without substantial cash infusions from the taxpayers,” said Young.