How two cities brought fiber to the home when the carriers couldn't

Think government can't provide cheap, efficient, high-speed connectivity? Two very different locales show it can

It would be hard to find two cities that are more dissimilar than tiny Leverett, Mass., and Stockholm, Sweden, 3,700 miles across the Atlantic. Even so, they have more in common than cold winters: Both sport high-speed fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks built by local governments when privately owned carriers were either indifferent or simply not up to the job.

There are many differences, of course. Stockholm's FTTH network is older, and although it was built by the city, it is leased and run by private carriers. Leverett's locally run FTTH network will go live later this year, made possible by the foresight of the state of Massachusetts, which built "a middle mile" fiber network that previously isolated communities can tie into.

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Other U.S. cities are considering their own FTTH networks, and it's no surprise to me that carriers, aided by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), are trying to stop them. Publicly owned infrastructure may not be ideal, but it's not like private enterprise is delivering. Despite a lot of hype and a very clear need, the carriers are moving toward FTTH at only a glacial pace. Google has had some success with pilot FTTH projects in a few cities, but it's unlikely to ever become a full-fledged national carrier.

Homes and businesses in the United States are still stuck with connection speeds that are far lower and at prices that are higher than in many developed countries in Europe and Asia. Our feeble connectivity is a drag on the economy, education, and government -- not to mention a maddening inconvenience. Maybe it's time to try something different.

The Swedes build an FTTH foundation for all to use
Susan P. Crawford, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a former special assistant for science and technology to President Barack Obama, recounted the lessons of Stockholm and Leverett in a recent blog post and related white paper.

Stockholm, she says, became frustrated that the incumbent carrier, Telia, had installed very little fiber. "So it created Stokab, a city-owned entity, that would own just the ducts, rights of way, and dark [unlit, passive] fiber lines. The idea was that the presence of this neutral infrastructure would stimulate investment, competition, and sustainable development."

That was nearly 20 years ago, when we in the United States were still popping AOL CDs into our computers. Today, individuals and businesses in Stockholm have many choices of FTTH plans provided by a variety of competitors. About 90 percent of households have it, and 100 percent of businesses do.

Businesses in Stockholm pay a quarter of what businesses in New York City pay for 100MBps service. And people renting dark fiber in New York pay about 14 times more what it costs in Stockholm, says Crawford.

A 2013 study by the research institute Acreo Swedish ICT found that Stokab has generated about $2.3 billion in social and economic benefits, and it has long since paid off the loans used to build the network.

What's not to like?

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