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Could municipal internet work in Buffalo?

Ashley Hirtzel

Faster internet access for everyone is the goal that two Western New Yorkers are trying to accomplish. WBFO’s Ashley Hirtzel spoke to the organizers of ‘Free the Web’ about the benefits of bringing municipal internet to the region.

Municipal internet is an internet service provided by local government or a local cooperative as opposed to companies like Time Warner Cable or Comcast. Free the Web Founder Andrew Banchich says the local service will provide higher internet speeds at comparable cost.

“Time Warner currently has a monopoly on broadband internet in Buffalo. Verizon does DSL. Verizon’s DSL is about 10 megabits per second and Time Warner offers 30 megabits per second. The communities that have municipal ISPs in other areas of the country can offer 1,000 megabits per second,” said Banchich.

The internet was invented in the United States in the 1950s. Banchich says internet speed, reliability, and quality has gone down significantly over the years.

“South Korea has 1 gigabyte per second internet speeds all over their country. They’re recently starting to roll out 10 gigabytes per second. So, that’s incredible. The average internet speed in the American home is megabits per second,” said Banchich.

Free the Web Organizer Cola’ Bickford suggests the municipal service run through a public electric utility. He says residents would pay like they do water or electric.

“We unfortunately don’t have a public electric utility, we have National Grid, They’re a UK based private company, but there are even examples of communities who have done it without a public utility. Santa Monica is a good example. They’ve done it through their IT department and built out the network slowly from there,” said Bickford.

Bickford says providing internet to everyone is a no-brainer. He says it will create more equal access to internet, especially to region’s more impoverished areas.

“I think the more we can give equal access to the internet the more educational opportunities there will be and I think that’s hugely important, especially for young kids,” said Bickford.

Chattanooga, TN, Bristol, VA, Lafayette, LA, and Santa Monica, CA all provide municipal internet service. Banchich says it has provided an economic boost in those cities. He says their successes should spur Buffalo to do the same.

“We have a growing medical campus and I’m sure a lot of researchers need very high-speeds and this would benefit them. Job creation-wise, Chattanooga, which has a population of about 150,000 they cited many businesses that moved there just for the internet speed alone,” said Banchich.

Banchich says Volkswagen of America opened an Assembly Plant in Chattanooga due to the low cost internet service in 2011. The plant created 2,000 jobs. Erie County Legislator Patrick Burke is lobbying for a local feasibility study.

“A feasibility study is going to be the first step in seeing how realistic this is. We have a committee that’s formed to gather information and set a plan in place and hopefully we will be able to access resources from within and from outside sources to fund the feasibility study,” said Burke.

Burke says there are numerous internet issues that must be solved, including lack of access and lack of competition among telecommunications companies.

“The quality of the service bothers me as an economic development driver, which I think is incredibly important. We’re seeing the benefits in Wilson, North Carolina. We’re seeing the benefits in Chattanooga, Tennessee. They’re drawing major companies to come there and it is resulting in thousands of jobs. We’re in the age of information and I don’t think we can afford to lag behind everyone else,” said Burke.

Burke adds that municipal internet is not something the county is going to rush into. He says there is support among other legislators, but they are waiting to see the outcome of the study before they boast its benefits. Banchich says he hopes the efforts of ‘Free the Web’ will make this possible.