long-run view of U.S. municipal communications networks

While successful municipal-owned communications networks can scarcely be found in the U.S. today, nearly all sizable U.S. municipalities owned and operated their own communications networks at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Municipalities built networks to communicate fire alarms and to communicate with police officers patrolling neighborhood beats. The first such network was a fire-alarm network built in Boston in 1852.  By 1902, 88% of municipalities with 10,000 residents or more had a municipal-owned fire-alarm signaling network. The corresponding figure for police-patrol networks was 32%. Larger municipalities were more likely to have both kinds of networks.[1]

Municipal fire and police networks had relatively little developmental dynamism.  In 1902, about a quarter century after the first commercial telephone exchange went into operation, only 2.5% of the boxes or signaling stations connected to municipal fire and police networks were telephone stations. Most stations used signaling systems based on older telegraph technology. The average size of fire and police networks were 52 and 85 stations, respectively.  Across the nearly ten thousand telephone operating companies that had sprung up by 1902, the average number of phones per company was 220. From 1902 to 1917, commercial telephone networks grew about four times as fast as fire and police municipal networks.[2]

At least some municipal fire and police networks continued in operation with rather crude technology up through the 1970s. Showing early signs of his engineering genius, my brother investigated how a fire alarm works by pulling a lever on a fire-alarm box in New York City in the early 1970s.  That caused fire trucks to come without any additional information being communicated.  Fire and police call boxes in Washington, DC remained in operation until 1976. Rather than evolving into electronic kiosks or nodes on wireless networks, they became historic artifacts now decorated with community call box art.

New municipal communications networks can have a more dynamic future than historic fire-alarm and police-patrol municipal networks.  Fire-alarm and policy-patrol networks were highly specialized and closely tied to specific city departments.  These networks never offered opportunities for the development of commercial businesses.[3]  These networks never structured themselves to be sold off to a commercial network provider.  New municipal communications networks need not follow those patterns.

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Data:  U.S. fire-alarm and police-patrol signaling network statistics, 1902-1917 (Excel version).


[1] Among municipalities with 50,000 or more residents, 75% owned both a fire-alarm and police-patrol electric network in 1902.  See coverage sheet.  Simple signaling is less useful in a police-patrol network than in a fire-alarm network. Hence a greater cost for a sufficiently useful police-patrol network may at least partly explain the lesser prevalence of police-patrol networks.  Here’s a DC police historian discussing use of police call boxes.

[2] The aggregate size of the commercial telephone system was also much larger than that of municipal fire and police networks. In 1902, the number of signaling boxes or stations in municipal fire and police networks was only 2% of the number of telephones in use.  Network mileage in the fire and police networks was only 1% of that in commercial telephone networks.  See historical development sheet.

[3] Early in the twentieth century, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had a relatively large municipal network for a city of its size (see municipal network list).  Milwaukee’s municipal network may have made Wisconsin Bell uneasy.  The Census Bureau’s 1902 report on municipal networks noted:

In connection with the use of the telephone for fire alarms it may be noted that it has been the practice of the Wisconsin Telephone Company, of Milwaukee, to suggest in its telephone directory that patrons send in fire alarms by telephone.  The chief of police has lately requested the manager of the company to omit this suggestion from the book hereafter, for the reason that it frequently takes too long a time to notify the fire headquarters by telephone.  This delay, he states, gives the fire a change to gain headway before the department is able to respond to the call.

See Telephones and Telegraphs, 1902, p. 126.  Book lending is an example of a service in which as diverse organizations forms, including public libraries and purely commercial libraries, have co-existed over a long run.

3 thoughts on “long-run view of U.S. municipal communications networks”

  1. I suggest that the author consider the analogous situation of municipally owned electrical power distribution networks. Cities from Vineland, New Jersey to Palo Alto, California have successfully owned and operated electrical power distribution networks that provide relatively low cost electrical power. It would be interesting to know if cities such as Vineland, New Jersey and Palo Alto, California (that have successfully operated municipal power distribution networks) have considered installing internet cables in the physical rights-of-way that they have access to and that they use for power distribution. The history of municipally owned power distribution systems, that continue to exist, certainly can shed light on the pros and cons of having municipally owned internet networks.

  2. I’m not sure what to make of your first sentence. The article you cite was incoherent – that reporter is new to the beat and did a poor job on the article. There are not many muni networks but those that have been built have been overwhelmingly successful. Including Glasgow, KY; BVU, VA; Reedsburg, WI; Monticello, MN; Spencer, IA; Tacoma, WA; Lafayette, LA; Wilson, NC; and a variety of others.

    Even among those networks that have struggled, if you ask locals, you will find that most believe the network created tremendous benefits from lower prices and increased investment to economic development. For many communities, the goal is to improve infrastructure – they do not need to break even on the network for many years.

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