Municipal broadband is municipal resistance
On the first day of his administration, President Donald Trump appointed Ajit Pai as chair of the Federal Communications Commission. Already a commissioner, Pai didn’t need Senate confirmation.
On the second day of the Trump administration, bolstered by the long time ambitions of conservative think tanks, Pai began to undo all the good work the FCC did in the last few years of the Obama administration. Internet privacy protections proposals? Gone. Net neutrality? Internet service providers, in the Republican world, have a First Amendment right to express themselves by speeding the traffic of web sites they favor and slowing that of web sites they don’t. Federal programs to subsidize broadband for the poor? Being dismantled, step by step, and, in some cases, turned into cash grants to the very companies that have been under-serving the poor.
The FCC itself? It needs to be “modernized” and its regulatory powers stripped and moved to the Federal Trade Commission, a body with neither the rule-making powers nor the expertise of the FCC. Corporate consolidation? Time to leverage those synergies. Price caps for monopoly broadband providers to businesses, schools, and libraries? Lifted.
Harvard Law School’s Susan Crawford, one of the nation’s preeminent scholars of telecommunication policy, calls this a “catastrophe.”
The telecommunications companies have wasted no time. Verizon announced a “gigabit” internet service which, the company admits, can’t reach gigabit speeds. All three wireless companies have introduced “unlimited” plans that, instead, have clear limits. Wireless and wireline companies have introduced cross-promotions that make it difficult to understand from whom you’re buying services. Sprint and T-Mobile are discussing a merger that had been shot down during the Obama presidency. None of these initiatives are about giving customers reliable, affordable high speed networking. They are, instead, about each company building a bubble of digital entertainment to surround you everywhere, ready for you when you cut the cord of traditional television.
The last bastion of a free, fair, and open internet is network neutrality, the principle that internet service providers must treat all network services equally. Pai seeks to squash this, the facts be damned. In a recent speech explaining his plan to dismantle net neutrality, something he considers government intrusion, he said, the “internet is the greatest free-market success story in history.” This is bullshit. The government funded and created the internet. The people who did the work weren’t entrepreneurs, but were instead academics and engineers who gave away their intellectual property without even thinking about compensation. The government privatized the internet in the mid-1990s, allowing corporations to profit from taxpayer-funded research. Ironically, at the time, large telecommunications companies fought the internet, trying desperately to keep it off their dialup phone systems.
And if all this wasn’t bad enough, the FCC itself sought to portray those defending net neutrality as unhinged in the form of Pai’s chief of staff tweeting, “Very sad to see racist, hate-filled attacks against Chairman Pai being submitted to the FCC.”
The article to which that tweet links notes that, out of 1.5 million comments, thousands of comments using fake names and bots posing as “Jesus Christ,” “Michael Jackson,” “Homer Simpson,” and “Melania Trump” … Over 500 were submitted using Chairman Pai’s name, as well as 189 from “Donald Trump” and eight from “Obama.” Eleven submissions used some version of the word “f — k.”
Eleven fucks out of 1.5 million comments seems rather restrained.
Government activism in promoting communication technologies is, literally, as old as America. It’s the US Constitution that grants the federal government the power to create the postal service and build postal roads. The 1792 Postal Act utilized that power to actually create a state of the art communications network, the printed word distributed by riders on horses. The postal system itself, according to scholars, was structured not to promote private profit, but to create a public sphere of newspapers.
When the previous Chair of the FCC, Tom Wheeler — an unabashed capitalist — looked at the broadband marketplace, he concluded that the free market had failed. His response was to call for activism via local governments: “When commercial providers don’t step up to serve a community’s needs, we should embrace the great American tradition of citizens stepping up to take action collectively.”
If an unrepentant capitalist sounds like a socialist — and means it — attention should be paid.
Wheeler believed that, even under the most stringent regulatory power his agency could muster, there was a strong case for the collective action of citizens acting through their local governments to build their own broadband networks. With the actions of the last few months, if you care about a free and open internet, there’s really no alternative.
There’s nothing magic about a fiber optic computer network. These networks have been routinely installed for decades and are well understood. Indeed, if a city were to build one, they’d likely employ the same consultants and contractors as the private sector. The advantages of municipal control lie in policy. While policy fights are taking place at the national level, they are really decided by whose cable connects your home and what policies they adopt. These have become national issues because, while we used to have large numbers of small ISPs, we now have a very small number of very large ISPs.
If you want an ISP that doesn’t track your every online move, you can ensure that through municipal broadband. If you want an ISP that treats all web sites, big and small, mainstream or radical, the same, you can ensure that through municipal broadband. Care about the cost of access for the economically less fortunate? Your municipal provider can set up a rate structure to provide broadband regardless of the ability to pay. Worried about corporate consolidation of communications? A municipal broadband system adds another player to the market. And, if you don’t want a telecommunications company building you a walled garden of its own information and entertainment services, a municipal broadband system would avoid that.
Boston has chosen a different approach—one of partnering with Verizon, which seeks to use Boston to demonstrate to Wall Street that it is a company looking to the future of digital entertainment and smart cities. Boston officials are acutely aware of the risks of this strategy, but believe that a $800 million municipal network is, politically, a nonstarter.
Cambridge chose to investigate broadband choices a few years ago and appointed a citizen Task Force. The report of the Task Force, of which this author was a member, showed that a municipal network would cost about $180 million. That, for wealthy Cambridge, is the cost of a school, which is to say, a level of social investment it routinely makes. The Task Force report has been sitting with no visible action or comment since last fall.
While we should all be following John Oliver’s advice and flooding the FCC with comments about net neutrality, we should also understand that national telecommunications policy in the US is as bald an expression of oligarchy as we can see. Consider, for a moment, Mike Huckabee, a man who hates his ISP at least as much as you do. If mainstream Republicans like Huckabee feel this way, why is their party pursuing policies that provide no incentive for ISPs to improve services and let them vacuum up more of our money? With federal policy firmly in the hands of the telecommunications industry, we need to look for other solutions. It’s time to demand that local governments treat modern broadband networks like they do streets and sidewalks, a part of the connective fiber of a vibrant community. If the newly emergent American nation can build roads, we can build fiber optic networks to enhance the public sphere. The alternative is a communications future controlled by a handful of companies for the benefit of their stockholders, not the public.
Oh, and Mike Huckabee? He got something the rest of us never do, a public apology from Comcast.