Fairlawn, Ohio - There is a recent story out of Fairlawn, Ohio that perfectly illustrates the future of Internet access in this country. For years, the small town was at the whims of large, incumbent Internet providers. The Internet was so slow and unreliable that businesses threatened to relocate, jeopardizing the economic vitality of the area. The mayor, alongside city leaders and council members, realized that the various incumbent providers were not going to cooperate, and to save their city, they would need to build their own city-wide fiber-to-the-home network. On this episode of Building Local Power, Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, and Sean Gonsalves, Senior Reporter and Editor, explain how, in the 5-plus years since the deployment of its city-wide network, “Fairlawn is doing so well [that] they are now boosting speeds and slashing prices.”
Post-pandemic, there is near universal agreement that fast reliable internet is as essential as electricity or water, but the debate over who should provide it and how is still heated. Big telecom companies have long fought to keep government out of their business: Barriers to municipal broadband are in place in 18 states, making it hard for localities to establish their own networks, thanks to industry lobbying. Even in California — where legislators lifted a restriction on public broadband in rural areas in 2018 — publicly owned networks are still rare. Now, however, $65 billion in broadband funding included in last year’s federal infrastructure bill has changed the dynamic, fueling a nationwide rush by state and local governments to connect residents to the internet.
If 2020 convinced the country that broadband for all Americans is essential, then 2021 underscored a reality of life: Goals often require longer timelines than we’d prefer. To put it another way, a worldwide emergency helped the U.S. recognize the importance of having ubiquitous high-speed Internet, and now we’re playing catch-up. There’s no quick and clean fix, which is a clunky pill to swallow for millions of people who contend with substandard or nonexistent connectivity as a new world of hybrid education, remote work, online services and telehealth takes over. The urgency for wider access to high-speed Internet has been palpable this year. The federal government has ramped up its focus on the issue.
As federal lawmakers held a hearing Thursday on broadband equity, a new report details how the internet service provider industry, through hiked prices and disappearing lower-priced offerings, is exacerbating the digital divide. Entitled Price Too High and Rising: The Facts About America's Broadband Affordability Gap, the publication (pdf) from Free Press states that "the central fact is Americans pay too much for the internet." "By the start of 2020, nearly 80 million people still did not have adequate internet at home," according to report author and Free Press research director S. Derek Turner. "Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people comprise a disproportionate number of those who are disconnected."
Yesterday, Public Knowledge joined Access Humboldt, Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, Consumer Reports, and New America’s Open Technology Institute in filing comments in response to the Federal Communications Commission’s Public Notice on the use of E-Rate funds to enable remote learning. Public Knowledge supports “off-campus” use of E-Rate funds to help students studying at home access the broadband they need to stay connected to classes, student services, and their families during the pandemic. The following can be attributed to Greg Guice, Director of Government Affairs at Public Knowledge: “As the nation enters its 12th month of the COVID-19 pandemic, most schools remain closed or opened on a limited basis, making distance learning the primary means of educational instruction for many students.
The rollout of fiber broadband will never make it to many communities in the US. That’s because large, national ISPs are currently laying fiber primarily focused on high-income users to the detriment of the rest of their users. The absence of regulators has created a situation where wealthy end users are getting fiber, but predominantly low-income users are not being transitioned off legacy infrastructure. The result being “digital redlining” of broadband, where wealthy broadband users are getting the benefits of cheaper and faster Internet access through fiber, and low-income broadband users are being left behind with more expensive slow access by that same carrier.
Early in the pandemic, one of our MediaJustice Network members reached out to us in hopes we could support a group of high school students in Baltimore who were trying to amplify their campaign. The students are leaders in a Latinx and immigrant student organization called Students Organizing for a Multicultural and Open Society (SOMOS), and this was their first time organizing for digital equity. When school ended last year, SOMOS realized that many of their fellow Baltimore city schoolmates who’d relied on Comcast’s Internet Essentials discount program didn’t have a connection fast or reliable enough for online school.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a reliable broadband connection is a health and safety necessity. Families need the internet to connect to remote work, virtual classrooms, election information and telehealth care while maintaining social distance. But roughly 60 percent of low-income parents say their students will experience digital obstacles when attending online school this fall — including 40 percent who say they will have to seek out public WiFi because they don’t have a reliable internet connection at home. And students aren’t the only ones who need internet access to learn, work and thrive at home — at all times, but especially now.
United Kingdom - There are thousands of community-powered initiatives in action across the UK. Projects to bring broadband to a rural place that wasn’t expecting it to arrive for years, generate renewable energy, or make the most of treasured local spaces or assets. Schemes to deliver addiction services, protect neighborhoods from natural disasters, or manage social housing in an equitable way. In none of these have the communities in question needed supervision from the state or transactions with big businesses.
Washington, DC - On October 27, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to reaffirm its 2017 repeal of net neutrality. The vote is a response to Mozilla v. FCC, a 2019 court ruling that found the FCC’s decision to repeal net neutrality was “unhinged from the realities of modern broadband service” and ignored the government’s duty to protect public safety, digital equity, and broadband competition. In February 2020, the FCC abruptly announced a short public comment period to address the ruling and the court-ordered remand, or do-over, of the net neutrality proceeding.
When the Department of Justice successfully broke up the AT&T monopoly into regional companies, it needed Congress to pass a law to open up the regional companies (known as Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers or ILECs) to competition. To do that, the Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that established bedrock competition law and reaffirmed non-discrimination policies that net neutrality is based on. The law Congress created a new industry that would interoperate with the ILECs.
Face the facts. We are tied to our devices in ways that are incredibly useful for organizing, but that also expose us to isolation should the state and companies take away these technologies. Cell phones and the internet rely on corporate infrastructure and is subject to both government surveillance and service denial. What do we do when social media bans anti-capitalists and anti-colonialists? What do we do when our cell phones fully become monitoring devices we willingly keep by our side, all to the benefit of state intelligence services?
Washington - In a blog post on Monday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai wrote that he stands by the agency's unpopular repeal of Net Neutrality rules. Pai also circulated a proposal to address three issues raised in 2019 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit when it remanded critical parts of that repeal and sent it back to the agency. At that time, the court commanded the FCC to examine the impacts of removing Title II as a source of authority for broadband’s inclusion in the Lifeline subsidy program.
Do you hear that silence? That’s the absence of footsteps echoing through our nation’s public school hallways. It’s the silence of teaching in a virtual space populated with students on mute who lack a physical presence. It’s the crushing silence of those who are now missing, who can’t attend the classroom that Zoom and Google built. Maybe you heard the shouted pleas of teachers across the country last year as we walked out of our classrooms and into the streets, begging for affordable housing, health care, and access to equitable funding and resources for our students? Or maybe you heard the impassioned screams of frightened kids as they stormed into the streets and onto the news, demanding safety and an end to the threat of gun violence in our nation’s school buildings? Now, there’s nothing left to hear.