Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Big money in politics isn't shy about blocking community broadband

One of the things that I've noticed about politics is that the terms of discourse tend to be grand and general. So on the point of big money in politics, I'd like to demonstrate how it affects people in a very personal way, down to their lifestyle.

Just about everyone needs broadband to function in the internet age. We use it to pay our bills, keep up with the news and watch content of our choosing. We use it to keep in touch with the government and watch what they do. For most of us, this is easy.

But in many neighborhoods around the country, getting fast, reasonably priced internet access is a struggle. Unfortunately, this struggle has nothing to do with the market, for there is plenty of demand. The struggle is caused primarily by incumbent service providers that do not want to provide service.

So when the people in such a community decide that they should create their own community network when local incumbent providers fail to meet demand, they are shut down by the state government for seeking something called "local control". I know. I live in Utah, the first state to pass model legislation built to do just that. That legislation was designed to prevent the rise of UTOPIA from competing against private internet providers, Centurylink and Comcast.

Community Broadband Networks has this story from Tennessee and you can read it here. In a nutshell, people are getting tired of going to McDs or the library for the wifi to do their homework. They are getting tired of going to a friend's house in Chattanooga to get a decent connection. They are tired of having no service at all. Yet, they have a government that is not responding to their needs. They have a government that is responding to the needs of very wealthy corporations.

Chattanooga, Tennessee has a world class community broadband network that is the envy of the neighboring counties in that state. If would be the envy of the rest of the United States if more people knew about it. It is run by the Electric Power Board (EPB) and provides gigabit access to the internet at the low, low rate of $70 a month. For those who want it, they are offering 10Gb/s for $299 a month. No one else can touch them on pricing, service and availability in their service area.

Local incumbents could do the same thing, but that might have an impact on their ability to finance the jet-set lifestyle of their respective CEOs and members of their boards of directors.

So a grassroots effort was born to fashion a bill at the state level to give local control to communities to decide for themselves whether or not to build their own network. Such a bill would also allow the EPB to extend their service area to neighboring counties so that they could get service where there was only poor service or none. Many of the residents of the state of Tennessee have poor or zero service from companies like ATT. Yet, ATT financed the defeat of legislation that would allow communities in Tennessee to build their own networks.

This is what big money in politics looks like at the local level. A community would like to make their lives better, but some very large corporation with headquarters back east don't like it when a city or town tries to do that without their help, for that would impact the bottom line. So they wine, dine and finance the campaigns of people in power who can blunt the ability of those same cities and towns from making their own lives better.

Now scale this up to the national level. This kind of behavior on the part of very wealthy interests prevents us from properly financing initiatives for universal health care, highway and road maintenance, social security, elections and even the post office. Big money in politics prevents us from creating public banking services as an alternative to private banks after they crashed the economy. When wealth is so concentrated as it is here in the US, a very small minority is telling everyone else how to live. Suddenly, we're not entitled to a public option. Not even for internet access.

The first step to getting a government responsive to the rest of us is to enact and enforce campaign finance reform and an anti-corruption laws that have real teeth. We want to send elected representatives to prison when they take money for political favors. We want to send people to elective office that promise to take no corporate money, and to be dependent on the people alone. Maybe then, we can have candidate debate with constructive action to get the work of the people done.

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