How Do We Further Democratize The Internet?

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Above photo: Freedom to Connect 2015. Hannah Sassaman is holding the microphone. Chris Mitchell is on the far right. By Fumi Yamazaki.

Broadband For The People, By The People

On the same day the Federal Communications Commission adopted “Net neutrality” regulations, it also voted to let the cities of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina extend their community broadband networks to neighboring communities. The 3-2 vote let the two cities pre-empt state laws that prohibit them from expanding the service beyond their borders.

The decision has also built momentum to repeal similar laws in 20 other states that either prohibit municipal broadband service outright or require communities to obtain permission to establish it from private Internet service providers such as Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and Time Warner, corporations that have largely monopolized the market across the U.S. Public broadband also often offers cheaper and faster service than the major corporate ISPs. Chattanooga, where a city-owned utility called EPB provides Internet service, was the first place in the Western Hemisphere with gigabit-per-second access—way beyond 25 megabits per second, which the FCC in January defined as the minimum speed to be considered broadband service.

“There are cities and communities across the country struggling for years, trying to bring competition into the community,” says Hannah Sassaman, an organizer with the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative, who is working on a community-broadband initiative in Philadelphia.

The fight to allow municipal broadband has been an uphill battle, but the smaller size of cities like Wilson and Chattanooga has given activists and citizens some room to mobilize against corporate influence. “Comcast and AT&T don’t really care about Chattanooga,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “They care a lot about Philadelphia. That’s where they do their best business.”

Cable companies have spent millions fighting community-broadband efforts. So although the FCC’s decision to reclassify the Internet as a public utility ensures a neutral network, activists say the fight to preserve and provide public access to it is far from over.

“Winning this campaign is only a step toward further democratization of the Internet that will make future advances easier,” says Kevin Zeese, an attorney and organizer at PopularResistance.org. “We need to keep the Internet a level playing field to further innovation and allow start-ups and entrepreneurs to be able to compete. From a movement point of view, we also need the Internet to be equal in order to get our message out and serve as a true sphere of communication in the 21st century. Citizens’ media, i.e. independent media outlets, advocacy news sites, and social media, need to continue to build their work on the Internet so we can become the primary source of news and overtake the corporate media. The reality of citizens’ media being the primary source of information is closer than we realize and if we work together to accomplish it, it is an achievable objective.”

Community broadband also ensures that the voices of all can be heard on the most ubiquitous platform for free speech. “For those in this room and others on live-streaming, it may be hard to imagine just how many people lack the capacity to access the Internet,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said at the Feb. 26 meeting. “Millions are trapped in digital darkness, robbed of the opportunity to telecommute in the wake of this winter’s weather madness or keep up with classroom studies due to the ever-mounting number of snow days and delayed start times and apparently lost voices. For scores of Americans, the choice of one, let alone multiple broadband networks, is a dream deferred, and the promise of universal access remains unkept.”

In a monopoly or semi-monopoly environment, private ISPs have little incentive to provide lower-cost service, to upgrade infrastructure and improve service speeds, and to expand to rural regions where the infrastructure isn’t already in place. In Bradley County, Tennessee, just outside Chattanooga, people have to use mobile phones or 1990s dial-up service to get online.

A community broadband option, Sassaman believes, would restore the balance. “If you rely on just one company without any kind of price control or guarantees that everyone could access it, they set monopoly prices—meaning people wouldn’t have power,” she says.

The FCC decided to pre-empt the Tennessee and North Carolina laws restricting municipal broadband because they conflict with its mandate to facilitate broadband service and competition across the country. “When a community is so desperate that it literally begs private companies to come in and serve, then is turned down in a cavalier and dismissive fashion by enterprises seemingly best suited to provide broadband to their citizens, then the option for that municipality to act on its own should not be foreclosed,” said Clyburn. “Sadly, opportunities are being closed far too often, leaving citizens without broadband and leaders with few meaningful ways to address their needs.”

In a statement after the decision, AT&T said it wasn’t opposed to municipal broadband, but said it should be confined to places where there is no private-sector broadband service. “Government money should not be used to compete with the private sector,” the company said. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) reacted by introducing a bill that would prohibit the FCC from pre-empting state laws restricting municipal broadband.

For states where there are not yet laws on the books tailored to the interests of cable lobbying power, efforts to implement community broadband have taken on many forms.

In Detroit, Allied Media Projects is supporting a grass-roots effort to build a closed wireless mesh network—which provide access through a cluster of wireless devices in the same area—in neighborhoods in the city’s heavily polluted southwest side. The network would enable basic community support and sharing of resources.

There are also private initiatives, notably Google Fiber’s experimental municipal broadband network in the high-tech hub of Austin, Texas. “They are building an incredibly high-speed network in Austin that will compete with local telecom monopolies and change pricing,” says Sassaman.

In Philadelphia, Bamboowifi, a “homegrown Internet” startup by James Gregory and David Platt, has launched a Kickstarter campaign to provide service through a mesh network of access points, which would be small businesses throughout the city. It would give residents a cheaper alternative to Comcast and Verizon.

For those poised to implement a broadband initiative, Sassaman says it is crucial to meet with local leaders, to consider the costs a network entails and the technical infrastructure appropriate for community needs, and to engage with citizens and stakeholders.

Community broadband has also become an issue in city elections. Two people running for the City Council in Seattle have made it part of their platforms, says Sabrina Roach, a “Doer” at Brown Paper Tickets, a nonprofit social enterprise. Her project is to support community engagement with the city’s consideration of a municipally owned broadband network.

“We are campaigning for a type of Internet in Seattle that is equitable and reaches all corners of the city, because current incumbent providers don’t serve the city as well as they could and are not beholden to the public,” she says. “We want municipal Internet broadband to be accountable to our residents.”