The startup that wants to disrupt big internet providers

A new startup backed by funding from AOL founder Steve Case and Laurene Powell Jobs wants to break up broadband monopolies across the country.

Why it matters: Internet access has been crucial during the pandemic, but it’s not ubiquitous, and it can be both slow and unaffordable in swaths of the country.

What’s happening: Underline, a community infrastructure company, began building its first open access fiber network in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last week.

  • Under the open access model, Underline builds and operates the fiber network while multiple service providers can use it and offer service to customers.
  • Residential service will start at $49 per month for a 500 megabits per second connection, with a gigabit connection available for $65 per month. That’s much faster than the 25-Mbps benchmark the Federal Communications Commission uses to define high-speed internet service.
  • Underline chose Colorado Springs for its first project by evaluating several factors, including households that lack internet access, the number of existing providers and how angry customers were with their current internet options, CEO Bob Thompson told Axios.

By the numbers: Underline’s project in Colorado Springs involves more than $100 million in capital to build 400 miles of fiber and offer service to 55,000 residences and businesses.

  • Underline has a list of about 2,500 target cities for service, Thompson said.
  • “We aspire to be the country’s first nationwide open access network,” Thompson said. “The 2,500 communities have been ignored by the incumbents for years on significant infrastructure upgrades. And they generally won’t qualify for the government’s infrastructure bill.”
  • Roughly 83 million Americans have only one choice for a home internet provider, according to a report from anti-monopoly think tank the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

The big picture: The open access model is not new, but it’s been gaining traction recently, especially as the pandemic has forced people to rely more on home internet.

  • California this summer passed a law to spend $6 billion on a state-owned open-access network meant to connect communities across the state to high-speed internet.
  • West Des Moines, Iowa, is planning to build a conduit network with Google Fiber paying the city for access to the network, but the project is facing blowback from the local cable internet provider, Mediacom.
  • Utah’s open access fiber network, UTOPIA, struggled financially in its early days, but the network has become a success story and continues to expand, Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Axios.

What they’re saying: Open access fiber networks, already popular in Europe, could catch on in the U.S. as demand for fiber increases, Falcon said.

  • “Everything needs fiber,” Falcon said. “There’s this unified infrastructure that exists — a medium of transmitting data — it’s fiber optics. If you want to do 5G and satellite, and fiber to the home, you can do all of that with the exact same set of wires.
  • “But the inefficiency that exists right now is everyone’s trying to build their own fiber network.”
  • A new study out Wednesday from
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