Friday, November 06, 2015

Small towns are the low hanging fruit of reform

There's a minor revolution going on in Colorado. Small towns are taking back their right to run their own broadband networks. Community Broadband Networks has the story right here. It an amazing story of a complete and total reversal for the dummies at Comcast and Centurylink.

The short summary is this: legacy incumbent ISPs, namely, Comcast and Centurylink, didn't invest in infrastructure in many small towns and counties in Colorado. Residents there pleaded with them to provide better connectivity. Instead of spending money to improve service, the incumbents lobbied to get SB 152 passed, restricting communities from running their own networks. SB 152 gave those communities an opt-out provision so that if there was enough support, they could escape the restrictions of SB 152.

44 communities did just that on Tuesday, a big jump from the other 9 that did the same thing a year before. In other words, 53 Colorado communities were so tired of the subpar service they were getting from Centurylink and Comcast, that they voted for local control and choice of their broadband service. Many communities passed this referenda by more than 80%, some higher than 90%, and all of them passed with sound and convincing majorities. Now they are free to run their own community broadband networks, or partner with local providers to build a network that works for them.

This, is a frightening prospect for the ISPs. Worse, word is going to get around the country about what happened and then they're going to have fight the same fight in other states. Odds are, they're going to lobby before they will build. Why? Executives at Comcast and Centurlink seem bent on demonstrating how they can make money, lots of money, and inflict pain on customers at the same time at the country club.

The communities that voted for this freedom were small, too small to be worth the trouble for incumbent ISPs. But they demonstrated an important part of American politics. They were also too small to invest in politically. A large corporation has no interest in sending money to small town politicians in order to maintain the private monopoly. Small towns and communities are, in a sense, the low hanging fruit of substantive change and reform.

Broadband is just part of the story. The story about broadband is a story about corruption in our elected offices. But that is starting to change.

In Maine, they've had publicly funded campaigns for 19 years, but the Citizens United ruling made life more difficult there. So they passed a new law that requires more transparency in campaign financing and works around the problems created by the Supreme Court. The state of Maine has a population of just over a million people. That's a rather small state and it's low hanging fruit.

There is also Seattle. They are instituting publicly funded campaigns to help get the big money out. Public financing can help to create campaigns focused on ideas rather than money. They help to create access for ordinary citizens with problems that affect everyone, not just the few that have been lucky enough to achieve the American Dream. Population? 660k. Small enough that ordinary people can effect change.

Even the state of Ohio has passed an anti-gerrymandering law for their state level districts. Governor Kasich admits that with this new law, Republicans could give up some power, but with that exchange, the gerrymandering cycle could be broken. Even conservatives are starting to admit there is a problem.

To see real reform in America, we may have to run bottom up instead of top down. As politicians are elected based on public financing, anti-corruption laws and anti-gerrymandering laws at the state and local levels, we could see reforms filtering up to the national level.

Reform may not come from a moonshot in a year. It might come instead over a generation from the small towns to the presidency. A gradual reform might actually be longer lasting as well, avoiding a direct confrontation with the moneyed interests while slowly removing their access to power.

Perhaps then, the people will have a louder voice than corporations that prefer to remain unaccountable.
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