President Joe Biden introduced “The American Jobs Plan,” a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that includes broadband upgrades, on March 31st. “Broadband internet is the new electricity,” he proclaimed. The White House Statement noted:
It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected. Yet, by one definition, more than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds.
Going further, it warned, “Americans in rural areas and on tribal lands particularly lack adequate access.”
The original plan called for the following:
+ It would reaches all “unserved and underserved areas” with “100 percent high-speed broadband covered.”
+ Funds will be set aside for infrastructure on tribal lands and that tribal nations are consulted in program administration.
+ It prioritizes support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits and co-operatives.
These elements, it argued, “will promote price transparency and competition among internet providers, including by lifting barriers that prevent municipally-owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers, and requiring internet providers to clearly disclose the prices they charge.”
Now, four months later, Congress seems close to agreeing on an infrastructure bill but it will likely be for $65 billion. On July 28th, the White House issued a “Fact Sheet” insisting the bill will “help close the digital divide by passing the Digital Equity Act, ending digital redlining, and creating a permanent program to help more low-income households access the internet.” It proposes a permanent program to subsidize the cost of broadband for low-income families along with a new program to help pay for devices like laptops and tablets. It proposes providing a discount of up to $50 per month toward broadband services to eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on tribal land, plus a one-time discount of up to $100 for a computer or tablet.
Background information for the White House’s statement is detailed in a draft of the Congressional broadband bill obtained by NBC News. It notes the bill would “establish a de facto minimum standard of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up …” This is a four-fold increase over the current FCC standard of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream.
Unfortunately, the draft bill does not include any mention of “municipally-owned or affiliated providers” of broadband that Biden’s original plan touted.
Few Americans are aware that the U.S. is a second-tier telecom country. It is estimated that, in 2021, only 32 percent of American homes have access to fiber broadband services compared to Norway and South Korea with over 80 percent access, and Spain, Portugal and Japan that are above 90 percent. Digital inequality divides 21st century America. The FCC estimated that, in 2020, 21.3 million Americans didn’t have home access to broadband. (The FCC defines “broadband” as 25 Mbps/download and 3 Mbps/upload.) John Kahan, Microsoft chief data analytics officer, warned that the FCC estimates were “vastly undercounts” and noted that Microsoft data indicate that almost 162.8 million people “are not using the internet at broadband speeds.”
Current telecom services are failing the American public and are a symptom of the deeper economic and social crisis plaguing American capitalism. Over the last quarter-century, the proclaimed federal policy of “deregulation” has led to industry consolidation, with a shrinking number giant conglomerates gaining ever-great market dominance as well as control over the regulatory process at the FCC and in state utility commissions. Today, a handful of huge telecom conglomerates – a cartel – are providing inferior services at a higher price than comparable service offered in other “advanced” capitalist societies in Europe and Asia.
Resisting this process, some 900 community broadband services offer an alternative way to reconceive broadband from a “luxury” to a “necessity.” Community broadband services – both “municipal” and “cooperative” services — seek to do more than make a profit but provide an essential resource like electricity. In this way, broadband needs to be protected and affordable if not free. It’s time for community networks to supersede the telecom cartel.
The most well-know of the municipal telecom networks is operated by the Electric Power Board (EPB) of Chattanooga, TN. It implemented the world’s first community-wide 10-gigabit internet service, available to more than 180,000 homes and businesses and, according to one estimate, has 100,000 customers. It also services Red Bank, East Ridge, Ridgeside, Hamilton County, Signal Mountain, Soddy Daisy and Rossville in Tennessee and Lookout Mountain in Georgia.
Chattanooga’s emerged as a high-tech municipality – i.e., “Gig City” — by chance. As the story goes, city officials were in discussion with Volkswagen executives about locating a new sophisticated manufacturing facility in the town. The execs worried that the city sits in the midst of what is popularly known as “Dixie Alley” that often causes electrical outages during a big storm. To overcome the likely possibility of outages, city leaders proposed that its municipal electrical service, EPB, would build a “smart,” fiber-optic grid that could reroute electricity in case of an emergency. EPB built the electric grid; Volkswagen built its high-tech plant; and, with the fiber wires strung on lamppost, EPB realized it could offer fiber to its electrical customers. And so, the city got wired.
The Bristol Tennessee Essential Services (BTES) is another municipal broadband service that began providing telephone and internet service via DSL (i.e., Digital Subscriber Line) in 2005; it began offering gigabit service via a fiber network in 2012. It serves an estimated 33,000 customers (including 14,785 households) as well as retail trade (17.6%), health care and social assistance (12.47%), and other business services (12.4%). “To give an example of how fast, you can download about two hours of video or upwards of 200 songs in just six seconds,” said Dr. Michael Browder, CEO of BTES. “For our residential customers, that means one person in the household can download a movie, while another is playing an online game, while another is watching an HDTV program – all without slowing down any of the activities. For our business customers, it opens the way for transporting and accessing ‘big data,’ which is critical for economic development of the area.”
Still other municipal broadband networks include:
Virginia Beach, VA — connects the city’s government buildings, schools, fire stations and more; the city reportedly saves at least $500,000 per year.
Portland, OR — schools are connected through a publicly owned network that cut costs by more than half (to $616 from $1,310 per month per site) and achieves speeds 40 times greater than other area systems; “Hillsboro Highlight,” a municipal network serving a Portland suburb has “one poor neighborhood and it’s gone out-of-its-way to make sure people can be connected but also to connect them early-on to the network.”
Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (aka UTOPIA Fiber) — is a consortium of 16 cities that, in 2004, joined together to offer a public fiber network. As Roger Timmerman, UTOPIA’s executive director, put it, “The national carriers are simply not making the investments required to make this happen, but we are.”
Wilson, NC — municipal fiber project for a city of 50,000 residents and 21,000 households. By 2015, it had 7,000 household subscribers. As Christopher Mitchell of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative notes, it helped low-income families get access to the Internet. He calls it “a major equity issue, as it is a minority-majority town.”
Finally, special note needs be made about the Choctaw Nation’s Tribal Area, OK. It covers ten Southeastern Oklahoma counties that long lacked access to reliable broadband service and was marked by low population density and a high poverty rate (25 percent of the population below the poverty line). Pine Tele provides voice, video, cell, long-distance and high-speed broadband through FTTH via landlines and wireless services.
In 2015, Pres. Barack Obama issued an executive report, “Community-Base Broadband Solutions: The Benefits of Competition and Choice for Community Development and Highspeed Internet Access.” It noted the following:
Competitive markets have helped drive expansion in telecommunications services as strong infrastructure investments and falling prices have opened up a wide range of new communications products and services. Where there is strong competition in broadband markets today, it drives similar improvements. Unfortunately, competition does not extend into every market and its benefits are not evenly distributed.
It added, “over the past few years, … municipal networks have emerged as a critical tool for increasing access, encouraging competition, fostering consumer choice, and driving local and regional economic development.”
When Pres. Biden announced his infrastructure plan, he proclaimed, “Broadband internet is the new electricity.” Today, electricity – like water, sewage and even broadcast TV and radio – is considered a public utility.
Susan Crawford, of Harvard Law School, offered a critical definition of a utility in a Wiredarticle. “Utilities are things, physical networks, that public utility commissions regulate: electric, gas, communications, water, and wastewater, mostly.” She pointed out, “these commissions typically ensure that utilities provide reasonably priced, adequate, and efficient services to customers, while allowing the companies involved to recover their costs plus a fair return to their investors.”
In a follow-up piece in Broadband Communications, Crawford went further, pointing out that “a utility is not a luxury. Utility services can be sold by private or public entities, but they are always subject to public obligations to reach everyone at a reasonable price, with a service meeting public quality standards.” She adds, “services that start off as luxuries can become utilities as their centrality to life becomes clear.”
Sadly, in the soon-to-be-adopted infrastructure bill, monies will be allocated for broadband but it will not be considered a utility. In all likelihood, most of the allocated billions will go to the dominant handful of telecom conglomerates, including AT&T, Comcast, Charter and Verizon. They form the 21st century’s telecom cartel.
In 2012, the journalist David Cay Johnston, in a New York Times op-ed, linked the issue of cartels to the telecom crisis. He argued, “what we’ve witnessed instead is low-quality service and prices that are higher than a truly competitive market would bring.”
He went on, noting, “after a brief fling with competition, ownership has reconcentrated into a stodgy duopoly of Bell Twins — AT&T and Verizon. Now, thanks to new government rules, each in effect has become the leader of its own cartel.” He added, “because AT&T’s and Verizon’s own land-based services operate mostly in discrete geographic markets, each cartel rules its domain as a near monopoly.” Over the last decade, the tyranny of the telecom cartel, a part of Big Tech, has only gotten worse.
In her 2019 book, Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution—and Why America Might Miss It, she argues that “a handful of private companies dominate last-mile data delivery in American cities.” She adds, “they choose the richest, densest areas to serve with expensive second-class services – not with malign intention, but with a detrimental effect on the country.”
Community broadband represents the only realistic alternative to the hold that the giant telecoms have on broadband services. In addition to the delivery of voice (telephony), internet (connectivity) and video (channels or streaming services) both wired and wireless, such services are accountable to the community and likely offer superior quality services at a lower price.