CORTLAND — Cortland may become a municipal internet service provider to establish a new reliable internet service for its residents.
“If the concept (of net neutrality) is something the city values, the city will provide regardless of what is ruled at the federal level,” Mayor Brian Tobin said Wednesday. “If the city has an ISP, the provisions in it would be fair and equitable for everyone.”
A municipal internet service provider is set up when a municipality feels that private companies who provide internet service are not doing it cheaply enough or accessible enough, as they feel the internet is part of basic human communication, business and democracy, said Aija Leiponen, an associate professor at Cornell University’s Johnson College of Business.
Tobin said the idea was brought to him by Eamon O’Shea, the chairman for the city Cable Commission. From there, the conversation turned to net neutrality, which was repealed by the Federal Communications Commission earlier this month, giving service providers like Spectrum, Comcast and Verizon the ability to charge different rates for different internet speeds or website access.
Tobin said the service will first focus on covering downtown Cortland before spreading to other areas of the city, and possibly other municipalities if feasible. A timeline for creating the service hasn’t been set.
Cortland is looking at other municipalities across the country for inspiration, including Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose city-owned Electric Power Board provides 10-gigabit internet service, advertised as the fastest internet speed in the country.
The initial start-up costs would be $100,000, which would be covered by a portion of $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative from the state earlier this year. The funds are meant to fund projects that would transform downtown Cortland and bring additional public and private investment. The municipal service provider would go along with a plan for a downtown Wi-Fi system that would provide a speed of 2.5 gigabits of service. According to highspeedinternet.com, a website that helps people find high-speed internet providers, a person with an internet speed of even 1 gigabit per second can download a high-definition movie in seconds rather than minutes.
Many small regional markets like Cortland rely on one or two internet providers, said Leiponen. That creates regional monopolies where people are forced to go to one place for service, a reason why some municipalities consider starting their own service providers, along with putting pressure on privately owned providers to improve the quality of service.
“Citizens can get cheaper service and better access,” Leiponen said. “But some people think it’s not a good idea for a government to compete against a regular market.”
“When there is no service, it is beneficial for a municipality to offer internet,” Leiponen said, with the municipal service needing better service levels and pricing to break monopolies. She would rather municipalities negotiate with providers for a range of services to provide and their prices.
However, a municipal internet service provider can be a great idea if it pushes economic development or extends connectivity to low-income families, said George Homsy, an assistant professor of public administration at Binghamton University. Municipal service providers can also be set up like a water or electricity utility — a regulated public utility.
“When it’s set locally, people who work for it are part of the community,” Homsy said. “They are often fixed quicker than bigger utilities. They may not always have as much capital, but they make up for it in different ways.”
Both Leiponen and Homsy are wary of what internet service providers will do in the wake of the net neutrality repeal.
With providers able to charge whatever they want for access to different websites, newer content producers would find it harder to crack into their market of choice, Leiponen said.
Homsy does not see any reason a municipal provider should behave differently from a private provider, but he expects municipal providers to be more responsible to their consumers.
“People who make those decisions would be in the community instead of a corporate headquarters,” Homsy said.
Some other aspects of the project still need to be fleshed out, such as if the service provider would be run by the city or by a non-profit board and a better understanding of the cost of operation.
Tobin said it is the city’s intention to operate the service without taxpayer funds.