At its meeting on May 18, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will decide if net neutrality lives or dies. Put simply, net neutrality means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Verizon and Spectrum have to treat all of the data coming through the line in a neutral way. Once you pay for access to the Internet, you get the whole Internet, no gotchas, gimmicks, or bamboozles. Cable companies hate this because they would much rather be able to charge for Internet access the way they charge for cable TV, with tiered service packages. This would let them charge extra for access to popular sites like Facebook or streaming sites like Hulu and Netflix. Even more likely, companies like Comcast that also own NBCUniversal, would like to fast-track their content and possibly block their competitors’.
This is not the first showdown over net neutrality. Back in 2015 the telecoms geared up for a big fight and lost. They lost to a huge, popular pushback that began at the grassroots but also gained the support of big tech companies like Google. The FCC decided that ISPs were subject to Title II of the Communications Act and had to act like a “common carrier.” A common carrier can be a for-profit entity but it has to act kind of like a public utility by offering its services to anyone at a reasonable rate and being impartial about what it transports. Just as the U.S. Postal Service doesn’t read your letter before deciding if it will send it to its destination, so too must ISPs deliver data regardless of what it says or where it is going. That’s how the government preserves net neutrality.
Donald Trump’s FCC chairman Ajit Pai has made it clear that he wants to do away with this decision. Moreover, he wants to free up companies to keep merging into bigger, more powerful corporations that control what you watch and read, and how you gain access to it. And, just to top it all off, he wants to allow ISPs to sell your browser history to advertisers.
In the short term, we need to organize against this decision. The FCC will be considering the ludicrously named “Restoring Internet Freedom” proposal on May 18, so there is very little time. Organizations like Fight for the Future and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are great places to learn more about this issue and get organized quickly.
This battle is important, but whether we win it or not, we will still be stuck with crappy internet service provided by one of the corporate ISPs. These are companies that would rather spend money on lobbyists than on upgrading their network. According to the Internet Society, the United States ranks 21st in average download speeds, and the Capital Region isn’t doing anything to bring that average up. What we need now, more than ever, is a public option for internet access. Residents of New York’s Capital Region deserve more options for Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and our city governments are just the right organizations to do it.
Back in 1900 when city governments actually tried to find new services to offer its residents, the City of Troy built a water reservoir that would provide fresh, clean water at a reasonable price. It still does that today and, in fact, sells water to neighboring municipalities, providing a source of much-needed revenue for the city. The City of Green Island produces its own clean energy from a hydroelectric dam it bought from Ford when it closed its plant in the 80s. Cities in the Capital Region can do something similar today with Internet access, providing a quality service, at a fair price. It would increase the quality of life in the city, create high-paying union jobs, provide an incentive for tech firms to set up shop in the city, and generate revenue.
This is exactly what Chattanooga, Tenn. did. It took out loans so the initial investment was not funded by taxpayers, and installed a state-of-the-art fiber optic network in 2009. Today they are already making enough of a profit to pay down the loan and maintain high-quality service. In fact, Chattanooga’s public utility company has the highest-ranked customer service of any ISP in the nation. For $70 a month residents receive a gigabit ethernet connection. I pay Spectrum about that much for just 6 percent of that speed.
The Capital Region has a few small businesses that use antennas to distribute a wireless network at a fairly cheap price. These are good for some homes and businesses that want to spend less on a connection that is about as fast and reliable as Spectrum’s, but it cannot compete with fiber optic. A robust, high-speed network is what attracts new businesses to a region, reduces rates from competitors, and employs hundreds instead of dozens. It takes a city’s access to cheap loans, either from banks or through bonds, that make such a network feasible at a local scale.
Gaining access to the poles and underground conduits that deliver the internet is also important, and the upcoming FCC ruling might make it harder. Part of being a common carrier means that even though the cable company owns and maintains the utility poles that the physical cables hang on, they have to let other private and public entities run their own cables. That means the upcoming fight is crucial to keeping our options open for new ISPs in the future, but it is not the only way our cities can get into the Internet business.
Chances are you have never heard of Level(3) Communications, but you use their equipment every day. Your ISP usually owns and operates the “last mile” of connection to your home but the really long cables that span cities and states, the so-called “backbone” of the internet, are maintained by companies like Level(3). Underneath Albany and neighboring cities is a fairly large bit of Internet infrastructure owned by Level(3). That means we don’t have to go very far to build our own, publicly owned network. Cities the size of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy rarely have such an opportunity, usually having to lease lines from ISPs to get to major backbones like the ones Level(3) operate. We don’t have such a problem and that means our public Internet options are that much easier and cheaper to build.
Keeping a free and open internet is just one of the seemingly endless challenges we face in this new and frightening time. An affordable, publicly owned system of instant communication can help us fight on all of these fronts while also creating jobs and stabilizing our cities’ cash-strapped budgets. Corporations know that this is a winning strategy that will destroy them, which is why they have lobbied to make municipal-owned ISPs illegal in 19 states and why Comcast sued Chattanooga when they built their own network. New York is not one of these states, but there are no guarantees that things will stay that way. Tomorrow we must start organizing for the FCC decision on May 18. On May 19, let’s start making a network for the people.
David A. Banks is a freelance writer, co-editor of Cyborgology, and resident of Troy, New York.