A few years ago, municipal broadband seemed like a progressive's dream. Instead of relying on the likes of AT&T and Comcast to deliver high-speed internet to people at a reasonable price, towns and cities could just do it themselves. But some of the high-profile projects didn't go so well. The most ambitious plan -- to turn Philadelphia into a giant wireless hotspot with low-cost access for everyone, courtesy of of a partnership between the city and Earthlink -- turned into something of a boondoggle, and eventually was dismantled.
That said, there are smaller-scale systems operating successfully (for instance, you can read about Bellevue, Washington's free downtown wifi hotspot here. But there's something besides technical and economic challenges standing in the way of municipal broadband: big telecom companies who see it as a threat. This story about Lafayette, Louisiana is pretty amazing.
In a nutshell, the city approached some big ISPs to see if they'd build fiber connections to people's homes; the companies weren't interested in doing so in a place that small; the city tried to do it themselves; and the companies responded by suing the hell out of the city. And it's not just there: Telecom companies have used their lobbying muscle to get state governments to erect all kinds of barriers to municipalities setting up their own broadband systems, including outright bans in four states (more info here).
So the telecoms provide mediocre broadband at high prices, and actively try to prevent anyone from getting anything better -- and they wonder why people hate them.
-- Paul Waldman