Updated: Chip Rosenthal headed the grass roots effort to bring Google’s gigabit fiber network to Austin, and he says the Texas capital was on the short list of cities that received a site visit and were in the final rounds. Unfortunately for Austin (and me since I’d be happy to plug into a fiber-to-the-home network) Google passed over the city and chose Kansas City, Kan. instead. Rosenthal, who is one of seven commissioners on the City of Austin’s Technology and Telecommunications Commission (a strictly advisory body), thinks it’s because Texas is one of four states that forbids municipalities from getting involved in building networks. And North Carolina is in the middle of approving barriers to municipal broadband deployment this week.
“Austin caught their eye for all the right reasons, and we had support at the highest levels with the involvement of the mayor and the city manager, but given the Texas limitations on municipalities getting involved in network, there was only so far we could go,” Rosenthal said. “So I look at the Texas Legislature, because they really put us in a box with regard to Google, and every response the city gave had to be measured within that box.”
Obviously, Rosenthal doesn’t know the exact reason Google chose Kansas City, Kan. — maybe the Google folks liked the Kansas City barbecue better — but it may be significant that Kansas City straddles two states, one with a law making it hard for municipalities to build networks and one side that actually has its own municipal network. In addition to outright bans, three states have de facto bans and 11 have various barriers to getting municipal networks passed.
This isn’t the first time having an anti-municipal network law on the books has irked Austin. Its municipally-owned power providers Austin Energy had wanted to build out more fiber and a more interactive smart grid, but it couldn’t provide broadband services to homes under the Texas law. So the utility had to use an unlicensed wireless network and its own fiber core for its smart meter deployment. Rosenthal is still curious about what motivated Google, speculating that having a municipally-owned utility might have played a role in Austin and Kansas City making it so far.
We’ve covered how Google fiber might become an asset in the smart grid (GigaOM Pro sub. req’d), and such an application would certainly bring additional benefits to the community outside of faster movie downloads — which some people assume broadband is for. However, Rosenthal is hopeful Google might continue its fiber expansion, or, because so many people responded to the call for better broadband, it might be a wakeup call to the state legislature. “I think a lot of people thought broadband was this ‘inside baseball’ topic, but this demonstrated to local officials that broadband is an issue theat resonates with the public,” Rosenthal said.
I, like Craig Settles, hope the same thing happens on a national level. We need someone or some organization to take the small section of the National Broadband Plan that argues for Congress to take action to eliminate the states’ anti-muni network laws with a federal law making it okay for communities to deploy network. Not every community will choose to do so, but they should at least have the choice.