The Number of Cities With Municipal Broadband Has Jumped Over 450% in Two Years

Study findings:

  • In 2018, there were just over 100 cities and municipalities offering public broadband.
  • In 2020, that number increased to over 560 cities and municipalities offering public broadband, a 460% increase.
  • According to public records accessed by GammaWire, several hundred more cities are currently working on policy to bring the option of city-owned broadband to their residents.

While most major internet service providers are trying to make sure municipal broadband doesn’t continue growing, their efforts haven’t yet stopped some impressive growth.

In 2018 there were approximately 100 cities and municipalities that offered broadband as a utility for their residents. Using data provided by the ILSR (Institute for Local Self-Reliance), the GammaWire broadband research team has learned that the number of cities and municipalities that provide broadband internet as a utility has jumped to over 560 cities, an approximate 460% increase in just two years.

While the argument for considering internet a public utility isn’t new (in 2000 the FCC actively argued in favor [PDF] of such policy), as the digital divide continues to increase, so has the number of calls for increasing municipal broadband rollouts. Proponents of the rollouts argue that access to the internet is at least somewhat comparable to other city utilities as a near-mandatory service for daily life.

Still, opposition to internet-as-a-public-utility has remained strong, as major ISPs have combatted, through policy and related financial contribution, the continued rollout of municipal internet services.

According to The Verge by way of data made available through The Center for Responsible Politics, ISPs have donated over 100 million dollars to US congresspeople. The donations have been equally split between political parties, but three major companies made up the largest portion of the donations: AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. With every city that tries to build municipal broadband, it’s not hard to find money flowing in to oppose the effort from the major ISPs.

Larry Irving, policy maker and former executive at HP, argues that while yes a digital divide exists, public broadband isn’t the answer. His argument, made in 2014 on The Hill, states that private sector innovation on internet access will provide better quality service for consumers than municipal broadband will.

Our broadband networks are not perfect, but with the exception of bringing or improving service to remote geographies, I don’t see many problems that government-owned or -operated broadband networks will solve.

Conversely, the specter of governments operating broadband networks in competition with the private sector, or of state or local governments serving as both regulators and owners of competing broadband networks, could stifle investment or reduce private-sector access to capital.

Larry Irving, 2014

Still, many people who have access to and use municipal broadband think rather highly of the service. In fact, in a 2019 report conducted by PCMag, the authors of the study found that many municipal broadband providers offer some of the fastest internet speeds in the country.

With regard to predicting future trends, it seems likely that the number of cities offering some form of either municipal broadband or at least a hybrid partnership version of it will continue to increase. As it stands right now, according to ILSR data and public data collected by GammaWire, several hundred cities are proactively campaigning to build such infrastructure for their residents.

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