Municipal broadband's Jekyll and Hyde

A municipal broadband effort in Burlington, Vt., is saddled in debt and facing criminal investigations. But despite some high-profile failures, quite a few municipal broadband networks appear to be thriving.

Municipal broadband efforts have had their share of success, but in a highly competitive environment, even the most well-intentioned plans can go wrong.

Ten years after launching a project to build a citywide telecommunications network, Burlington Telecom, a public-owned provider for Vermont’s largest city, is facing $50 million in debts and state and federal investigations, writes Dave Gram of the Associated Press.

Part of BT’s problem is a lack of revenue, because not enough people had signed up for the service, Gram writes, even though those who have the service say they’re happy with it. And although investigators have not released details of their investigations, BT had notified the Vermont Public Service Board in September 2009 that it had used $17 million in city funds, which was a violation of its state license, according to the report.

Burlington’s effort isn’t the only municipal project to have gone off the tracks. In 2005, Philadelphia launched an ambitious plan to provide free Wi-Fi access throughout the city, prompting dozens of other cities to follow suit. But the project, run by the nonprofit Wireless Philadelphia, ran into roadblocks — including opposition from commercial providers — and EarthLink, which had been hired to build the network, backed out, saying not enough people had signed up for it.

Earlier this year, the city bought up Wireless Philadelphia’s assets and announced plans to make the network available only to government.

But despite some high-profile failures, quite a few municipal broadband networks appear to be thriving. Chattanooga, Tenn., in September beat everyone to the 1 gigabit/sec barrier with its community-owned fiber optic network, putting the region on par with high-tech Hong Kong.

A report in May by the non-profit New Rules Project details municipal efforts around the country, and includes charts comparing municipal speeds and rates with those of commercial providers.

The report, which argues in favor of the cost-effectiveness of municipal networks, cites hundreds of successful efforts, involving both fiber and wireless networks large and small. Lafayette, La., and Monticello, Minn., for example, offer some of the fastest connection speeds at the lowest rates in the country. Oklahoma City’s wireless mesh network has helped the city modernize its agency offices

In addition to the successes, the report discusses the obstacles to municipal networks, including opposition from commercial providers. Ultimately, it concludes, “There is no one model for community broadband.”

Note: This article was updated at 9 a.m. Dec. 9 to remove an inaccurate reference to Burlington as Vermont's capital.

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