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The Internet Is Broken. Here’s Who Can Fix It.

The fight for local broadband is finally heating up

Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg

NNot so long ago, as the internet emerged from the dial-up era and corporations were just beginning to monetize it, many writers argued that broadband would usher us into a new digital “utopia.” In 1996, John Perry Barlow, the founder of the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote a Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace about the new ethics of the internet.

According to Barlow, a brave new online world that “all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth” was on its way. This new frontier would be “more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before” and lead us to collective enlightenment.

That didn’t quite happen.

While the internet has enhanced many aspects of our lives, the rise of deadly online propaganda, persistent privacy scandals, giant telecom monopolies, and weaponized trolling has stripped the bloom from the rose.

Consider Facebook’s repeated failure to properly protect our data, Twitter’s inaction against hate on its platform, and Comcast’s quest for total domination of the broadband connections to the home and the content traveling over them.

It doesn’t have to be this way, as the history of past technological shifts shows. Early transit and electrification efforts in the early 20th century required a broad partnership between the public and private sectors to protect the interests of ordinary citizens. Such cooperation has been lacking in broadband service, resulting in a market peppered by apathetic monopolies.

In response, however, a growing chorus has emerged arguing for greater public involvement in providing what they view as an essential utility. Many cities across the U.S. have started to develop their own reliable and affordable broadband services. These efforts hope to shift the balance of power more heavily toward the public interest, broadening both broadband availability and internet accountability. But while this local-level campaign may help redefine broadband as a utility that everyone should have access to, the move is angering an internet service provider (ISP) industry that’s grown all-too comfortable with the profitable status quo.

InIn the 1930s, utilities refused to bring electricity—initially thought of as a luxury—to the vast landscapes of the American countryside. They argued the effort would be too expensive. The resulting service gaps quickly became emblematic of the disconnect between the haves and have-nots. They also showed the consequences of monopoly power on an emerging but vital technology.

President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal Rural Electrification Act ultimately solved that disconnect by insisting that electricity access was necessary to give rural dwellers a “fair chance” at life in the 20th century. As a result, essential electrical connectivity was delivered to the furthest reaches of the country. The effort also funded the rise of member-owned cooperative electric power companies, many of which still exist today.

The electrification movement forced a balance between private industry profit and the broader public interest. The U.S. now finds itself facing the same crossroads with broadband access, a technology that is as vital to a “fair chance” for life in the 21st century as electricity was for the 20th century. But today powerful telecoms determine who can access high-speed internet, and they do so with little imperative to serve the greater good.

Unlike the country’s early electrification efforts, there’s no unifying vision to address the digital divide, nor are there many leaders willing to shake off lobbying influence and truly address the problem. Broadband access may receive lip service from some politicians during campaign season, but political contributions from ISPs tend to be speak louder.

The sound of that voice has been deafening. Giant telecom operators increasingly dominate not just your onramp to the internet, but the content flowing over those pipes. Comcast—which provides broadband access to more than a third of Americans—now owns a growing roster of regional sports networks essential to its competitors, who say such content is packaged and priced to disadvantage them. AT&T owns channels like HBO that are vital to its competitors. Verizon now owns not just a sprawling telecom empire, but a growing roster of media outlets, including AOL, Yahoo, and The Huffington Post.

The ownership of both the conduit and the content gives these companies an unparalleled ability to resist competition, which may be great for shareholders, but less so for the rest of us. ISPs have increasingly been caught applying arbitrary broadband usage restrictions on their customers if they use a competitor’s service, but not if they use an ISP’s own platforms.

“Community ISPs in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Wilson, North Carolina, aren’t just competent — they operate the very best networks available in the country.”

Government efforts to address issues on this front have often fallen flat, thanks to antitrust oversight steadily eroded by years of lobbying. Just this week, the Justice Department lost an appeal that would have stopped the $86 billion merger between AT&T and Time Warner. In both the initial battle and the appeal, judges were criticized for quickly shooting down arguments that the deal, just weeks after approval, had already resulted in higher rates for consumers and competitors alike.

The interest of the public is usually a distant afterthought in the wake of such consolidation. Polluted by campaign donations, the federal government has repeatedly failed to offer cohesive, guidance on how best to deliver competitive, ethical, and uniform connectivity to the public. The message is clear: Americans are on their own.

That realization has led many towns and cities to take the problem into their own hands. More than 750 American localities have now built their own broadband networks, according to a map of such efforts by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), a group focused on helping communities build sustainable localized economies. In many instances, these projects piggyback on locally-owned electrical utilities, most of which still depend on rules crafted during the Roosevelt era.

It’s easy to see why they’ve mobilized. Americans pay some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world. A 2017 study out of the U.K. found that, at an average of $66.17 per month, the United States ranked 114th overall in a comparison of global markets. The reason: Most U.S. consumers only have one ISP available to them. Meaningful competition is virtually nonexistent, especially at higher broadband speeds. By contrast, municipal broadband networks routinely offer better, faster, and cheaper service than their private-sector counterparts, according to a recent study by researchers at Harvard University.

“Communities have often built their own networks as a last resort, which is odd because community ISPs in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Wilson, North Carolina, aren’t just competent—they operate the very best networks available in the country,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the ILSR.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the city-owned electric utility EPB began offering residential broadband service in 2008. Despite some early lawsuits by Comcast intended to thwart the effort, EPB began offering gigabit (1,000 megabits per second or Mbps) fiber in 2010, significantly faster than the FCC’s standard 25 Mbps definition of broadband.

Chattanooga, Tennessee is one of a growing number of cities with a municipal broadband service. Credit: Walter Bibikow/AWL Images/Getty

Consumer Reports last year declared EPB the best broadband provider in America. The local ISP provides significantly faster speeds than area incumbents and even lowers prices occasionally, something unheard of in the broadband sector. What’s more, the community-run operation prompted Comcast to improve its own services. Seven years after Comcast filed its first lawsuit against EPB, it finally agreed to provide comparable speeds.

“Local communities are learning from neighboring local governments that they do not have to wait for 21st century access to the internet at an affordable rate, and so they are choosing to self provision,” Ernesto Falcon, a lawyer at the digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tells OneZero.

CCommunity broadband isn’t always a one-size-fits-all solution because every locality faces unique challenges. But for perpetually-forgotten communities, the efforts are useful as a way to drive private sector improvements. Community ISPs also provide a compelling local alternative to ISPs that routinely engage in anti-competitive or even potentially illegal behavior.

The nation’s biggest ISPs have had great luck in recent years lobbying for the elimination of both broadband privacy and net neutrality guidelines, giving them carte blanche to behave badly in the wake of limited competition and napping regulators. Community-run ISPs like EPB have used this as an opportunity to set themselves apart by promising to behave more ethically.

“The large for-profit ISPs are motivated by extracting every possible penny from the provisioning of broadband.”

Falcon argues that because a local community ISP is directly accountable to local residents, it’s less likely to engage in anti-consumer and anti-competitive behavior.

“Community owned networks are being deployed with a very different motivation at heart, which is to get people connected to fast, affordable internet and ensure the financials are sound,” Falcon says. “The large for-profit ISPs are motivated by extracting every possible penny from the provisioning of broadband, which I think has a negative incentive on deploying to difficult-to-reach users.”

According to the nation’s biggest providers, there’s no problem in need of fixing.

“Over the last 20 years, private companies have invested more than $1.5 trillion to build and maintain robust broadband networks that reach 95 percent of American homes with increasingly faster and reliable internet services,” says Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the NCTA, the cable industry’s biggest lobbying and policy organization.

“We share the goal of connecting every American to broadband internet service, which is why we have urged policymakers to dedicate funding for broadband deployment programs to focus first and foremost on connecting unserved communities.”

But American communities aren’t jumping into the broadband business for entertainment value. They’re doing it because they’re dissatisfied with existing services, which is reflected in studies that show that large ISPs have some of the worst customer satisfaction ratings in any industry in America—often worse than government agencies like the IRS.

Getting users out from under the thumb of entrenched telecom monopolies can drive changes in the broader internet industry that go beyond prices and download speeds. An ISP that adheres to net neutrality, for example, wouldn’t cordon off the internet for the benefit of giant content partners, which limits consumer choice. The same applies to consumer privacy, where a local ISP focused on simply providing quality broadband is less likely to be interested in monetizing your data.

It shouldn’t be surprising that giant telecom operators haven’t responded well to the threat of grassroots broadband. They’ve engaged in policy gamesmanship over the years to scare voters away from the idea, including false claims that community broadband helps fund pornography or will result in the government attempting to ration consumer TV viewing.

In more than 20 states, large ISPs have lobbied for (and in some cases literally written) protectionist state laws prohibiting towns and cities from building their own networks, even in areas where private industry won’t. Telecom lobbying organizations also push the narrative that such efforts pose an extremely high risk to taxpayers left footing the bill.

“They want people to think it’s wildly expensive to run an ISP, but the truth is there is no good reason every American isn’t on track to getting fiber to the home today.”

Some communities creating their own ISPs have saddled themselves with steep financial obligations they weren’t prepared for, which is why many municipalities conduct extensive feasibility studies before pursuing the option. But there’s nothing inherently dangerous about a community-run ISP if it’s something local voters are interested in and they adopt smart business plans.

“It is true that some have run into trouble, but that usually comes from poor planning rather than the concept itself being unsound,” Falcon says, pointing to EPB’s ability to sell $60 per month gigabit broadband to around 20,000 users, while still turning a profit. “That’s the dark secret of the industry. They want people to think it’s wildly expensive to run an ISP, but the truth is, there is no good reason every American isn’t on track to getting fiber to the home today by some provider.”

The nation’s biggest ISPs could easily put an end to the rise of community broadband by simply offering better, cheaper service, while respecting consumer privacy. Instead, they’ve found lobbying to be a cheaper path toward protecting their revenues from competition—whatever form that competition takes.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding community-owned broadband—both in favor of and in opposition to—closely mirrors the same complaints made by private electricity utilities during Roosevelt’s rural electrification campaign. Just as ISPs do now, the electricity industry argued that the government’s quest for uniform connectivity would destroy, not supplement, private industry.

In reality, though, community broadband has proven incredibly useful in lighting a fire under an entrenched telecom sector, creating the more accountable moral and ethical backbone that technologists like Barlow envisioned decades earlier. But as we saw in the 1930s, it’s going to take a nationwide movement and leadership to drive solutions that can finally break the broadband logjam created by private telecom monopolies.

Internet access has become a cornerstone of modern civilization. If it is rotten at the edges, the disease travels upward into the body politic and the broader internet ecosystem. If profit becomes the unrelenting central motive, public interest will be the victim.

“It was not until we made it a federal mission to connect every American to electricity that it happened,” Falcon tells OneZero. “Right now, the government still treats broadband as a private luxury rather than an essential service. If we re-adopt the goals of universal access, with a specific focus on 21st century access, we can accomplish what we’ve done with water, electricity, and the roads.”

And if this connectivity on-ramp becomes more open, democratic, and competitive, such a shift could go a long way toward addressing the broader ills of the modern internet as a whole.

Seattle-based freelance writer with a focus on tech, tech policy, and consumer rights.

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