A pair of studies issued Monday by the New York Law School Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute (ACLPI) question the viability of broadband networks deployed by local governments, arguing that research results “make clear that municipal broadband remains a risky endeavor that rarely generates the benefits touted by proponents.”

The first report consists of a case study of a failed municipal broadband network in Bristol, Virginia that, at one time, had been “touted by the FCC . . . as a good example of the potential of community broadband.” Despite having been lauded by the Obama Administration in its 2015 report on community-based broadband, the report states that the Bristol municipal network has since failed and is now “being sold at a loss to a private company.” Stressing that, “the ongoing dissolution of [the Bristol] municipal system should be seen as . . . a cautionary tale in the ongoing story of municipal broadband ownership in the United States,” the ACLPI study contends that the events of Bristol highlight (1) “the array of risks of entering a competitive broadband market,” and (2) “the many challenges in unwinding” a failed government-owned network (GON). ACLPI further contends that the impact of GON deployment on taxpayers and the full cost of unwinding such systems should be factored into any cost-benefit analysis of municipal broadband ownership, observing that recent difficulties in selling the Bristol network “are especially relevant” in light of claims by pro-GON advocates that municipal networks are valuable assets “that can be easily sold off.”

In a separate study entitled GONs Update, the ACLPI examines the progress of municipal broadband network deployment at specified localities in Connecticut, Colorado, Michigan, Wisconsin and Tennessee, and the status of a public-private municipal broadband partnership in Westminster, Maryland. ACLPI reports that time and cost estimates for implementing the Westminster public-private network have been exceeded. Although Westminster officials predicted in May 2014 that the network “would be built by 2015 and able to break even financially shortly thereafter,” ACLPI notes that, by October 2015, city officials had “revised their estimates for project completion, suggesting it could be done in three to four years, but it could easily go five to six.” As one possible explanation for the difficulties of municipal network ownership in Bristol, Westminster and other localities, ACLPI points to statistics from the FCC’s most recent broadband competition report demonstrating that “most consumers chose to subscribe to plans that deliver speeds in the 10-25 Mbps range, even when service faster than 25 Mbps [from GONs] is available.”