Broadband Boost

Cities are seeking out higher Internet speeds

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Los Angeles has a plan to speed up its traffic, but it doesn't involve any freeways. The city is launching an ambitious project to bring broadband Internet service to its residents and businesses that's roughly 100 times as fast as the average U.S. connection.

Doing so requires running fiber-optic lines--which transmit data much faster than copper cables--throughout the city. The proposal's cost, estimated at $3 billion to $5 billion, would be picked up by the company that wins the right to provide gigabit-speed Internet, TV and phone service. "This effort is hugely important for our economy," says L.A. city council member Bob Blumenfield, who is spearheading the project.

It's a sentiment shared by officials across the nation, who are grappling with the challenge of bringing Internet access to poorer residents and increasing speeds that lag behind those in other developed countries. Google Fiber, the tech giant's lightning-fast service--now under development in Kansas City, Austin and Provo, Utah--has inspired envious local governments to look into upgrading their digital infrastructure. "Cities are impatient to unleash their citizens' human capital," says Susan Crawford, a tech-policy expert at Cardozo School of Law.

But incumbent Internet providers have resisted municipal broadband networks for years, and 19 states have laws in place that discourage or prevent communities from building their own. Costs are one major deterrent. Political complications are another.

In November, industry groups tied to Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, invested heavily to help oust Seattle's mayor, Mike McGinn, who made higher-speed Internet access a top priority. (Comcast denies that its donations had anything to do with McGinn's Internet policies.)

L.A., with its plan to provide free broadband service powered by the private sector, may have found a balance that works--if it can find a willing partner. For the city's Internet users, faster speeds can't come fast enough.