If we want a free and open internet, we should build one
This month, the FCC, as expected, voted to end net neutrality. This comes on the heels of a Republican Congress repealing Obama-era regulations forbidding your internet provider from monetizing your internet usage history and the FCC gutting Lifeline, a program to help the economically disadvantaged purchase internet services. These moves are all part of a pro-corporate conservative playbook developed in Washington think tanks. No amount of public protest was going to derail this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Republicans had to tilt the telecommunications landscape overwhelmingly toward big corporations.
In truth, the most extreme outcomes predicted for the loss of net neutrality are the least likely. What’s more likely is what you see, today, from your mobile phone provider. Rather than charging more for a service, there are “free” services bundled with your phone plan. This is immensely popular because, really, who doesn’t like free? Of course, if one service is free, that effectively means that other competing services cost more. New services don’t spring up, because who in their right mind would try to compete with free? This all will accelerate the already rapid consolidation of communications and content companies, driving those outside the mainstream into increasing marginality.
There is, however, a small set of people for whom these terrible decisions will have absolutely no direct impact: people who are lucky enough to live in a community that has decided to build a broadband network for itself.
Broadband access is a distinctly local problem. You don’t need a giant corporation to provide it. Instead, you need cables that run through the streets of your community, reaching its homes and businesses. The technology to do this isn’t anything mysterious or innovative. Corporations, universities, and governments have been installing these sort of networks for a couple of decades. All you really need is the money to pay for the cable and its installation and operation. This is the sort of investment municipalities make all the time, as they build and maintain roads and schools. There’s no reason cities shouldn’t make similar investments in the infrastructures of the future.
If you want your municipal broadband provider to be neutral, it can be. If you want it to respect your privacy and not monetize your data, you can keep it from doing that. If you care about digital equity, you can structure rates to provide low or no cost access to those who need it. And by creating a new broadband utility, you chip away at the power the telecommunications companies have by taking away some of their customers.
Due to corporate lobbying, it is illegal in 20 states for municipalities to enter the broadband business. Massachusetts, however, has one of the strongest statutes permitting cities to enter the telecommunications business. As the backlash to the FCC’s net neutrality decision intensifies, we should expect that statute to come under attack. And we should expect a broad attack on municipal broadband. The reality is that, for cities who make realistic financial projections, broadband is a decent business to be in. With reasonable rates, it may not generate the sort of eye-popping financial returns Wall Street demands, but it does pay for itself. If you don’t believe that, consider that this spring the Commonwealth of Massachusetts awarded grant money to Ashfield, Leyden, Mount Washington, Plainfield, Shutesbury, and Windsor to construct municipal broadband systems.
If we want to maintain a free and open internet and constrain the power of the corporate behemoths that increasingly control the flow of information, all we need do is to start building networks that aren’t under corporate control. The time to demand this of our municipal governments is now.
The author is a member of, but does not speak for, the Cambridge Broadband Task Force.