Could Threats to Net Neutrality Spark Interest in Local Broadband?

Despite broad public opposition, the Federal Communications Commission and its chairman Ajit Pai in December voted to rescind rules intended to ensure net neutrality. Those rules prevented the prioritization of content by Internet service providers, and their repeal is expected to benefit telecommunications companies such asComcast and AT&T. (To learn more,
read Fortune’s
explainer on the subject

.)

But the decision may have unintended negative consequences for those major Internet providers. In the wake of the FCC’s move, there appears to be growing interest in ways to access the Internet without requiring the centralized services of corporate ISPs. Enter the community-based Internet service.

The most prominent example—limited in scope but symbolically important—was announced by the tech website Motherboard
on the same day as the FCC repeal vote. The site and its privately held parent company, Vice Media, say they will build a community ISP near their Brooklyn headquarters and develop a guide to help other groups build locally-owned Internet services. Vice also appears to be working with a group in Honolulu
to build a local system.

The Vice project will follow the model of the existing NYC Mesh
network, a community-based service that lets users within a neighborhood share an Internet connection. ( A mesh network is defined by the interconnectivity of its nodes
.) It charges no fees to users, and, crucially, says it “does not block or discriminate content.”

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But mesh networks are still relatively unproven and may be a hard sell for an average consumer. Another option is the municipal broadband service
, which are owned and operated by local governments and essentially mimic the Internet access provided by corporate ISPs. Their pitch: Because they’re locally owned, they are more responsive to customers on issues, including net neutrality. Successful municipal services are already operating in locales such as Chattanooga, Tenn
.

Still, municipal efforts can lose money or outright fail
—not to mention that expanding the purview of government is a political nonstarter across much of the U.S. Indeed, several states have laws that effectively ban municipal broadband
—laws that have been lobbied for by big telecoms
and justified on pro-market grounds.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many people use corporate ISPs to access the Internet, even as they criticize them. (In a recent survey most Americans opposed the FCC’s rollback
, and the tone of the opposition was vociferous ahead of its December vote.) Still, recent attention on net neutrality could encourage people to try alternative Internet access methods. Inverse, the digital magazine for men, reports
that NYC Mesh has received a record number of inquiries since the FCC vote, and recent votes in more than a dozen Colorado localities showed overwhelming support
for locally-run Internet access. Recent rate hikes by big ISPs are already being linked
by some to the net neutrality rollback, which could fuel further interest in alternatives.

That could have serious long-term consequences for popular broadband providers. In just one city that recently voted to move forward with a municipal system—Fort Collins, Colo.—it has been estimated thatComcast could lose up to $23 million per year
if faced with local competition. Watch this space.

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