A key problem in improving Internet access has been ensuring residents and local businesses have high quality services. One means of ensuring high quality is via competition – if people can switch away from their Internet Service Provider, the ISP has an incentive to provide better services. However, the high cost of building networks is a barrier for new ISPs to enter the market – limiting the number of options for communities. Open access provides a solution: multiple providers sharing the same physical network.
Publicly owned, open access networks can create a vibrant and innovative market for telecommunications services. Municipalities build the physical infrastructure (fiber-optic lines, wireless access points, etc.) and independent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) operate in a competitive market using the same physical network. In this competitive marketplace, ISPs compete for customers and have incentives to innovate rather than simply locking out competitors with a de facto monopoly.
The open access model is often compared to road systems. Roads are built and maintained through both public funds and taxes on vehicles, but do not themselves fill the coffers of municipalities. They are then used by everyone – trucking companies, UPS, taxi cabs, pizza delivery people, etc. – to deliver services or get around. For the municipality, the net gain of building robust road systems comes in economic development successes, improvements in quality of life, and other indirect benefits rather than direct profits.
Building open access broadband networks along the same principles has proven immensely successful at fostering competition and producing economic gains in some U.S. communities, but also more extensively in Sweden, France, and Japan. In the United States, this model has been used less frequently, in part because of differences in national regulation and the power of the largest corporations to shape policy.