Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Utah legislature doesn't really care about local control when it comes to broadband

Every week, I read some new story about how some other city in another state is planning, funding, building or enjoying fiber to their homes. My source of news? muninetworks.org, a part of the Institute for Local Self Reliance. These two sites are totally consistent with a philosophy that works to distribute power rather than concentrate it.

It is at the Community Broadband Networks site (muninetworks.org), that I learned about Chattanooga, Tennessee, a city with a power utility that built a gigabit network for its residents. This city is attracting entrepreneurs and creating high paying jobs with that network. Chattanooga proves once again that all networks create jobs. From rivers, to railroads, to roads, and finally, to fiber, with every new networking technology, new jobs are created.

So it is with disappointment that I read the news about Utopia, a community broadband project between 13 cities that is sort of falling apart. For the people who have Utopia, they love it. For several years, I lived in a house that was 1.5 blocks away from having a connection to that network. I waited for years, never got one.

My only choice for one and a half years was Qwest, now known as Centurylink, with a measly 5mbs, and only 80% was guaranteed. By luck and persistence, I managed to get Comcast connected to my house and by the time I left that house, I had a rockin' 50mbs. Then I moved.

In my new home, the only wired choice is Centurylink, which tops out at 20mbs here. I have wireless providers to consider, but they are not as reliable as cable or DSL. Not even close since line of sight is required to make it work. The lack of a Comcast presence here suggests a palpable cooperation between Comcast and Centurylink. For some reason, I've landed in two houses where Centurylink was the only choice for internet access. It seems to me that Comcast has ceded this territory to Centurylink.

But I want Utopia, anyway. Well, I might have had it except that years ago, as Utopia was forming, the incumbent carriers, Comcast and Centurylink, both sweet-talked the legislature into passing model legislation for hobbling community broadband so that privately held monopolies could continue their rule.

The model legislation I speak of is called the "Municipal Telecommunications Private Industry Safeguards Act" and can be found here. Turns out that Utah was the first to pass such legislation, which, as reports that I've found have it, was authored almost entirely by AT&T. Utah enacted that model legislation into law in 2001. 19 other states have followed. It is anticipated that with Republican majorities in many state houses, more states will adopt the same legislation at the behest of the largest internet service providers in the country.

The organization that promotes such legislation is called ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a conservative organization almost completely dominated by commercial interests. In this case, ALEC offers essentially off the record support of the interests of the incumbent carriers that we all know and love: Comcast, Time-Warner, AT&T, Verizon and Centuylink. They are all private monopolies, with enormous power to influence public policy at the expense of the consumer. You can find a somewhat dated list of ALEC members in the Utah state house here.

So today, I read yet another story about how local communities across the country are funding, building and/or enjoying internet without our beloved incumbent carriers, and I'm reminded of the malaise in Utah. Sure, we have the Utah Broadband Project. But it's a website designed to pay lip service to the incumbents. They may have a database that helps Utah residents figure which addresses have the service they want, but the dataset is in a format that is only supported by proprietary software that is expensive to buy and install.

As I read that story, I am reminded of how 13 cities who just wanted faster service could not get it from Comcast or Centurylink. I am reminded of how those cities sunk hundreds of millions from bonds into their network, only to meet the business end of two lawsuits designed to delay their progress. The two lawsuits were filed by Comcast and Qwest, and both of them lost, but Utopia was delayed, costing them millions in revenue, millions in legal fees.

Did the Utah legislature intervene? No. But they were happy to help privately held networks in the hopes that the "free market" would prevail. If the free market were to truly prevail, there would be no need for community broadband in more than 400 cities across this great country of ours.

Rather than help these 13 cities, the Utah legislature is content to let them bicker and fight in a mire of bond debt, while other cities in other states see their revenues rise with community broadband as new businesses and jobs move there, where the gigabit access can be found.

The dream of privately held networks providing reasonably priced, reliable and fast access to the internet is just that. A dream. Privately held public infrastructure just doesn't work. We've tried it and failed. Many times. Infrastructure is built and maintained by governments for a reason. We need the infrastructure to be held by an organization that will span generations, that will have reliable funding to ensure maintenance and upgrades, while treating everyone equally for access. That's what we do with our roads. Oh, yeah. We want that business to be accountable to the communities they serve. We don't want them focused on financing the second home of the CEO on the coast of Spain.

The internet was once known as the information superhighway. It still is, but not in most places in the United States. Go to South Korea, Japan, Finland and Switzerland, and you'll find faster speeds at lower prices. South Korea has rolled out Gigabit access nationwide for $20 a month! But ISPs in the United States will have none of that. Why not?

Because most of our ISPs have made enormous investments in content. Time-Warner is wedded to an enormous content library going back nearly a century. Comcast is in a partnership with NBC-Universal. Two of the biggest internet providers alone have control and access much of the content created here in the US. Slower speeds for us means bigger profits for them.

This is why we need community broadband. The state of Utah is all about local control. The Beehive State is all about local self reliance. Go to any supermarket in Salt Lake City and you will see a section or even an entire aisle dedicated to emergency preparedness. You will find buckets of food prepared to last 20 years or more that you can keep in your cold room.

Cold room? It's a room bound by a thick wall of concrete on all sides and it's just for food storage. It's sort of a Mormon thing, but as I was shopping for houses last year, I saw many basements with a cold room. I have a friend who has one, too. This is part of the local self reliance philosophy of the Beehive State.

But when it comes to internet access, well, the state legislature has declared that local self reliance doesn't apply. Why, they think it would be better for us to rely upon Comcast or Centurylink for our internet access, with service controlled by a few men back east, complete with absentee ownership of networks here, in Utah.

See, if you want to run for office here in Utah, local control is a great topic to show your concern for federal oppression of Utah. But when it comes to internet access, local control is a non-issue. Cities should not be allowed to build and maintain their own networks in competition with incumbent providers who seek a nice fat profit rather than to serve our communities. Besides, you can get more money from Comcast than you can from Utopia for your next campaign, right?

This is what I think about when I see that Los Angeles is planning a gigabit network. Or that Chattanooga, TN or Wilson, NC have their own gigabit networks. Or that several cities in Colorado defied their state legislature and voted to restore local control. Or that several cities are using the franchise renewal process to deny Comcast the right to Time-Warner infrastructure if they should ever merge.

Rest assured, the Utah Legislature will stand up for the incumbent providers long before they ever consider the possible success of Utopia, if given half a chance, let alone repealing the model legislation that has hobbled Utopia since 2001.

Yeah, I'll be thinking of all that when Pioneer Day rolls around.
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