Monday, November 24, 2014

Community broadband is a great job creator and a great utility

Hardly anyone seems aware that the City of Los Angeles is working on a community broadband network. I certainly didn't see that in the news, did you? The plan? To connect every house and business within the city of Los Angeles with fiber for up to gigabit access. They got started on the idea in 2013. I learned about it by accident while searching for videos on the topic of community broadband. During my search, I found videos of city council meetings with discussion of this idea. I hope they succeed in doing this because LA can set a national trend for community broadband like no other city can.

There seems to be some cognitive dissonance in Congress on two topics: net neutrality and community broadband networks. Net neutrality is the idea that every packet that passes through an ISP must be treated equally to avoid creating an environment that allows a carrier to block or hinder communication with any business, organization or person on the internet. Net Neutrality is about freedom of speech. Net Neutrality enjoys wide support among Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. But you would not know it by listening to some very vocal members of our Congress. Why? The majority of both houses take big money from the incumbent carriers and are in the pockets of the likes of Comcast, Time-Warner, Verizon and ATT.

In terms of public policy, community broadband networks and municipally owned networks have a similar problem. The chairman of the FCC has stated that he will seek to preempt state laws that prevent communities from building their own networks, but Congress has threatened to defund the FCC if such attempts are made. When asked directly, incumbent carrier executives have a real hard time explaining their opposition to community broadband networks and continue to falsely assert that they tend to fail, when in fact, the vast majority of community networks have been successes.

The amazing success of community owned networks like those in Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC prove the point. Those networks deliver gigabit service for the very reasonable price of $70 a month, have brought thousands of jobs to their cities and keep the money in the the city rather than allowing that money to go to New York or Philadelphia to finance the CEO's vacation home on the coast of Spain.

I see in community owned networks, a solution to the problem of net neutrality. First, the community owned network sets the interests of the community they serve as the highest priority. They answer to the community first, not a distant board of directors or shareholders intent on seeing greater dividends at the expense of their customers. Community broadband providers must answer to local governments that must answer to local citizens, rendering the issue of net neutrality moot.

Community networks have been shown to create or attract thousands of jobs. Graduates with big ideas are choosing Chattanooga over San Francisco for that great gigabit connection. Companies are relocating to places that offer a gigabit from a community owned network for one simple reason: they don't have to worry about a private monopoly pricing them out of the market or throttling their connection. People are staring to see that the incumbent carriers are imposing a tax and unnecessary regulation on their communities by distant bureaucrats in corporations like Comcast and Verizon.

So, on the one hand, we have Congress threatening the funding of the FCC when it comes to preempting laws that prevent communities from building their own networks. On the other hand, several conservative communities in Colorado have passed resolutions to reclaim local control so that they can build their own networks.

Colorado isn't the only state that allows communities this option. Many states are starting to understand that communities need to be able to escape from recalcitrant incumbents who make promises to build out, but never do, by building their own networks.

It should also be noted that in Comcast's quest for a merger with Time-Warner, many cities are noticing that they can prevent Comcast from taking over properties held by Time-Warner if the merger goes through. They are actually voting NO on Comcast and making a very public statement that they do not want to let Comcast in.

It seems to me that community broadband is part of something much bigger, an anti-monopoly movement. The problem with dark money in politics grew from the growth in monopolies in the US. Monopolies are too big to fail, too big to jail. They are massive concentrations of political power and will always, always, always, seek to promote their own survival and profits even when the laws they promote really don't support the communities they serve.

Community broadband represents a shift away from private infrastructure, private monopolies and the graft, bribery and corruption that they can promote. There are many things that private enterprise can do better than government. We get that. Unfortunately, infrastructure run by self-interested private corporations doesn't work very well. That's why we've had much greater success with public water and electric utilities, and internet utilities like Chattanooga's Electric Power Board.

Our infrastructure works better when it's a tightly regulated public monopoly than a privately held monopoly that consistently works against the interests of the people they serve. Broadband is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity and as such, it is infrastructure, it's a utility and it's a public interest that should be managed by a public utility company that answers to voters and local government.

If there are private interests who think they can do better, let them try, but a public option is a requirement to set a level playing field for the consumer and the service providers. A public network will keep the private networks honest and limit the ability of the private service providers to grow beyond a point where they can be held accountable.
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