Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The economic perils of slow or no internet access

Community Broadband Networks has this short but fascinating story about life without internet access. Or, in this case, slow internet access. You know, like dial-up. This is about a family that is dealing with Charter Communications and ATT, neither one of which feels inclined to provide better service.

The video provided in the story tells most of the story. Slow access. Inconsistent or sometimes unavailable access. "Let's go to the university to get something done" access.

The story is about a resident of Bradley County, TN, a place with mostly slow or unavailable internet access. Debbie Williams is speaking and she goes on and on about how hard it is to get anything done. Not only that, when her family tried to sell their house, it took two years to sell it. Why? As soon as people asked about the internet access, the exchange went the same. Slow speed? I'm out. They'd get all the way to closing and the question would come up and that would be the end of that. They tried renting a room and even then, could not get a renter because of poor internet access.

The Williams family, like many others in the area, live next to one of the fastest ISPs in the world, Chattanooga's EPB Fiber Optic network. But they can't get service from the EPB because of a state law that prevents the EPB from expanding service outside their network. That law was written and paid for by incumbent service providers like ATT and Charter Communications.

EPB is a publicly owned ISP. It has great customer service, very happy customers and it will connect you to a gig for about $70 a month. Contrast that to the neighbors to the network that can't get EPB service. They can't telecommute to work. They can't get renters and have difficulty selling houses. Their kids have to go to the university or somewhere else to get faster access to the online services they need to use. All because a few incumbents are just not as efficient as a public utility that provides internet access.

I kid you not, I have seen "conservatives" in social media go on and on about how efficient private enterprise can be compared to government services. True, there are many examples where private enterprise does and should excel at what they do compared to how government operates. But in most examples I've seen, we're not talking about utility services like water, electricity and ... and ... and ... internet access.

Most cities and states get it that when it comes to utility services like water and power, public utilities that are strictly regulated work best. But if we had the kind of service with our utilities like people in Bradley County have with internet access, you can bet we'd be voting in droves to fix it. You know, like they did in more than 50 jurisdictions in Colorado.

There is a much darker side to this story, though. When we witness the contrast in quality of life between Bradley County and Chattanooga in the context of internet access, we see a seemingly secret desire revealed to us. The private ISPs could deliver the same service as EPB if they wanted to, but they won't. Why not?

Do private ISPs derive some guilty pleasure at watching their customers plead with them for better service? Are they waiting for the day when, somehow, their fantasy legislation will sail through both houses with a custom noose just for EPB so that they can swoop in to save the day? Or do they really find it that difficult to choose between bloated executive salaries and customer service?

This contrast in service between EPB and the surrounding areas is a matter of public policy. Who pays for that public policy? Some of us would say the taxpayer. But follow the money and what we see are incumbent service provider executives so terrified of having to provide higher speeds with better service, or even competing against each other, that they got together to write legislation to suit their whimsical desires. Then they sent money to representatives in areas they don't even live in, to pass legislation they don't have to live under.

The legislation in question prevents the EPB from servicing residents outside of their original service area. The EPB is providing great service, earning a reasonable profit and pumping it all back into the community they serve in a virtuous circle. This what legacy incumbent ISPs don't want us to see. You'll never see this story on the evening news from any of the 4 national television networks. That just isn't going to happen because public policy is not written by the average man or woman. It's written by the 1%, in complete and total contempt for the people they don't want to serve.

To change this scene, we only need to show up at the next election, every election and study up on even the local candidates. Those local candidates, if determined enough, will wind up in the statehouse or even Congress. As they move up, they could do more damage or more good. But if we're not watching, listening and voting, we'll never know.

Ultimately, it's up to us to change it. If we want local control, we're going to have to work at it to get it. When we establish local control for internet access, we will be in a position to decide how internet access is sold and provisioned in a way that a CEO in corner office in New York City cannot. We can make internet access work for the public good rather than the private interests of a few very lucky men and women.
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