A new startup is ready to take on big telecom with an approach to Internet access it says can change everything. While open access models are not new, their prevalence in the U.S. is quite low.
A Dearth of Competition
One of the great challenges that have faced Americans over the last two decades when it comes to internet service providers is a lack of choice. We had a choice when we all still used dialup, but when broadband became prevalent, localized competition all but disappeared. This is changing but doing so slowly, and many Americans still only have a single broadband option. There are little most households can do if an ISP does meet its needs or is providing poor customer service. There is also the issue of ISPs being slow to expand service in underserved areas where the potential profit margins are low.
Underline is a startup that has plans for about 2,500 communities so far. Most of these communities are currently underserved, and what Underline wants to do is not only provide Internet service in those areas but give those areas options. That should improve prices, availability, service, and so forth. The first area targeted is Colorado Springs, and the company broke ground on the project in mid-October.
Open Access Fiber Networks
Introducing competition to a community seems like a great idea, but how do you actually facilitate that? The concept that Underline is using is referred to as an open-access fiber network. It will create a fiber-optic internet network and be responsible for maintaining it and expanding it. It will not, however, take a role in providing direct access to end-users. Instead, it will sell access to ISPs who will then dictate what plans are available, provide customer service, deliver customer support, and so forth. The hope is that the best of these ISPs will rise to the top because the customer base will choose them.
The Power to Choose
Although everyone in the community would be accessing the internet via the same infrastructure, the exciting aspect would be the ability to choose between ISPs. Perhaps one ISP would focus on 1 Gig plan while another would specialize in more affordable packages, and if a particular ISP was charging too much or not treating their customers well, that would be reflected naturally in its market share.
Better Access for Students Too
This model may not be attractive to the major players like AT&T and Spectrum, but those companies are part of the problem. There would be money to be made here by smaller companies who could not otherwise afford the infrastructure and would not be able to serve this previously underserved area.
Lockdowns due to the pandemic made remote learning a reality, and even as life returns to some semblance of normality, that aspect of education is here to stay. Unfortunately, there are many households in areas like Colorado Springs that do not have access to broadband or have to choose between it and putting food on the table. If what Underline does is successful, it could provide a roadmap to succeed in other rural areas as well.
The Road Ahead
It is worth mentioning that the open-access model is not new. Sweden is one of the earliest examples of such an approach through which it provides service to most of Stockholm. There are also success stories in France and Japan. It is just a matter of seeing whether we can make it work here in America.