Saturday, August 08, 2015

How legacy incumbent ISPs fight the economic benefits of community broadband

I'm a big fan of community broadband. Community broadband is, simply stated, a network built by the community for internet access to serve the local community and public interest. There are numerous examples in America of community broadband. In fact more than 450 communities have built their own networks.

The most famous is Chattanooga, TN, a city that built a fiber to the premises (residential and business) network so that everyone in that city could have fast, reliable access to the internet. Their network arose out of a sincere desire by the Electric Power Board to serve the community. When Comcast became aware of EPB, they began a campaign to stop EPBs plans. They launched lawsuits and political campaigns designed to malign a government owned network as unfair. But the locals didn't believe Comcast:
Comcast claimed that a publicly owned fiber optic network was unnecessary because the company could “meet the telecom needs of Chattanooga.” In Comcast’s vision, Chattanooga’s telecom needs did not include building the first citywide 1Gbps network in the U.S., even though that network ultimately drew national media attention and attracted new businesses and entrepreneurs to Chattanooga.
I live in a city that could have built fiber to the premise for every address. Utopia, the Utah Open Infrastructure Agency was the agency to build that network, but the local and incumbent ISPs, Vivint, Centurylink and Comcast, have waged a very successful war against Utopia to prevent further adoption of community broadband in this city. Their lawsuits, foot-dragging and political machinations have stalled Utopia by at least a decade. Here in West Valley City, instead of providing everyone with fiber to the premises, Utopia only serves about 16% of the addresses.

When we hear the legacy incumbent ISPs talking about "what is fair", their talking point is that it is not fair when government provides a service that directly competes against a private provider of the same service. What private providers don't say is that they are not willing to provide the service that the city rolls out instead for the community it serves.

In a 2012 report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the economic benefits of community broadband are described in detail. The report describes in detail, the plight of three communities seeking better broadband from absentee corporations that are only focused on the bottom line rather than the interests of the communities they serve, if at all. Community Broadband Networks (a part of ILSR) has compiled many examples of the economic benefits of community owned networks here.

As EPB competition prevailed in Chattanooga, ATT and Comcast both dropped their rates and increased speeds in their offerings. This is an indirect benefit as lower rates for everyone means that they have more money to spend locally. The EPB network provides gigabit access to the internet and that has attracted entrepreneurs and jobs to the region, just like Kansas City, Missouri, a town where Google Fiber has sprouted.

The ILSR report also describes the ferocious opposition of legacy incumbent service providers to community broadband. The lawsuits, the politics and attacks in the press were all designed to prevent, malign or prohibit community broadband just to ensure that incumbents could take their own sweet time about providing a better service. All in the name of "fairness".

Fairness, in the words of the legacy incumbent service providers, doesn't include raising rates when there is little to no competition. Fairness doesn't include unreliable or slow service. Fairness doesn't include using political contributions from corporate treasuries to defeat community interests.

So when you hear about a legacy incumbent ISP fighting to keep government out of the internet access business, remember that they are fighting against fairness. They are fighting against economic development. They are betraying the public trust.
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