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Public Works Water Maintenance workers Joe Ferris (left) and Nick Hibma install fiber optic equipment for city-owned internet service. (Photos courtesy of the City of Anacortes)

Anacortes, Wash., is a picturesque town on Fidalgo Island, 90 minutes north of Seattle. Best known for its marina, it’s a popular spot for travelers to stop on their way to the San Juan Islands. But there’s something else special about this place: its municipal government, which represents a population of about 15,000 people, is about to become a high-speed internet provider.

In a few weeks, Anacortes will join a growing cohort of cities, dissatisfied enough with the private sector, that have decided to offer internet service as a public utility.

Advocates for so-called municipal broadband say the internet is as vital to daily life as electricity or clean water — and they want to see it provided in the same way. Anacortes and other municipal broadband pioneers will provide a test case and, if successful, could be a model for bridging a widening digital divide between urban and rural communities.

Establishing a municipal broadband network is no small challenge, judging from Seattle’s repeated attempts. The city’s partnership with Cincinnati-based Gigabit Squared, promising to bring gigabit Internet to thousands of residents, crumbled in 2013 after the company failed to raise enough money to implement a high-speed Internet network using the city’s dormant dark fiber network.

Further progress has stalled since 2015, when the Seattle City Council voted down a $5 million proposal to begin developing a municipal broadband network.

Officials in Anacortes have spent the past few years researching how to become an internet provider, creating a plan, and building the infrastructure necessary. This month, the city plans to pilot service in three areas. If all goes well, they will expand the service area with the goal of providing internet to the entire community by 2023.

Jim Lemberg is managing the Anacortes broadband project. (Photo courtesy of City of Anacortes)

“The internet of things is coming and although we don’t know exactly — really we don’t even know vaguely — what the world will look like in 2050, it’s going to require high-speed connectivity,” said Jim Lemberg, the manager of the Anacortes broadband project.

The service will cost residential customers $39 per month for 100 megabit-per-second service and $69 for gigabit speeds. Businesses will pay $89 or $149 per month for those speeds. The prices are comparable to a new service that Fort Collins, Colo. is rolling out. Voters in the mountain town approved a municipal broadband plan despite an opposition campaign from cable giants.

There are at least 55 municipal networks serving 109 communities with publicly owned internet in the U.S., according to the Institute for Self-Reliance, a non-profit that works to support local economies. Private internet providers are pushing back on the trend, often lobbying for laws that prevent cities from building broadband networks. Nineteen states have laws or barriers in place that restrict local jurisdictions from implementing municipal broadband, according to the nonprofit.

Researchers at Harvard University found that municipal broadband networks typically charge lower rates and are more transparent about pricing than their private equivalents in a 2018 study. 

Municipal broadband has caught on in several Oregon cities, including Sandy, a town that Anacortes officials visited during their due diligence phase. Several communities in Washington state are also considering public internet programs, according to the Institute for Self Reliance.

Ferris installs fiber optic cables into Anacortes’ existing waterlines. (Photo via City of Anacortes)

Anacortes is the first American city to use a technique for installing fiber optic cable using existing water lines. Officials chose that method because it’s less expensive and faster to run the cables.

“This technique is designed specifically to utilize our existing water infrastructure for the deployment of fast fiber optic communication links, with minimum disruption than traditional techniques,” said Nicole Tesch, an administrative manager at the Anacortes Public Works Division.

“Just as water, sewer, and public safety are considered essential public services, broadband access is vitally important to establishing and maintaining the quality of life in a community,” she added.

Funding for the project comes from the city’s general fund surpluses. Lemberg says Anacortes will recover its costs in about 15 years.

“This is the reason why the numbers work for a municipality,” he said. “Because a government entity, like a city, is willing to consider a very extended payback period whereas a traditional service provider is going to, broadly speaking, want to recover their invested capital in a period ranging from 18 to 36 months. These kinds of projects typically do not attract the attention of the commercial service provider just because the numbers aren’t going to work.”

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