Is Community Broadband the Path to Net Neutrality?
The FCC introduced its new proposal for “protecting and promoting the open Internet” in May. They still seem unwilling to take the most desired approach of reclassifying ISPs as telecoms, which would give them greater regulatory power. For now Commissioner Tom Wheeler hopes that the threat of reclassification will keep them in line.
More than 120,000 comments submitted thus far tend to believe the proposed plan won’t work.
American consumers find themselves with few choices when it comes to broadband Internet. Most are paying high prices for speeds that are far slower than the rest of the world. There is no technological impediment to higher speeds. It’s greed on the part of corporations that has caused the exorbitant prices.
Like most things in America, the barriers to true high speed Internet are due to a conflict between politics and money.
Google has been adding high speed fiber optic connectivity in select cities across the country. Google Fiber is currently in Kansas City, MO, Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah, with plans to expand to 34 additional cities. The download and upload speeds far surpass anything that is currently being provided by any broadband provider – up to 200 times faster than the slowest connections – all at a lower cost. Still, even if they expand to all of the planned cities, they would be a blip on the map and millions will still be at the mercy of the broadband providers.
Now local communities are trying to follow in Google’s footsteps.
The idea of community broadband, also called muni networks, is not new. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 had such networks in mind by specifically prohibiting states from putting up unreasonable barriers to any entity that wanted to provide telecommunication services. Since that time, broadband providers have successfully lobbied to make it difficult, if not illegal, for cities to create their own fiber optic networks that would be available for use by any service provider.
However, as the public grows louder about its desire for high speed at affordable cost, local and state governments are looking at creating their own networks, which would be treated like the electricity grid or city streets. It would be owned by the public for the public — all for a much lower cost than from for-profit companies. It would be open to all content providers for the same price for true net neutrality.
The FCC is even encouraging the efforts.
In January, the Commission announced the Gigabit City Challenge to encourage broadband Internet providers and local and state governments to bring at least one gigabit of speed to all 50 states by the end of next year. In March they held the first of several planned workshops to help all involved develop successful plans to provide high speed internet. The investment would encourage innovation, grow the economy and benefit everyone from individuals to schools and health care providers.
However, broadband providers are not taking it lying down.
Since the beginning of the year, five states have tried to pass laws to prevent cities from creating their own broadband infrastructure. Backed by various cable and telecommunications providers, the bills have been pushed through as a direct result of the renewed interest in net neutrality. In Kansas, a bill was introduced that specifically prohibited cities from creating their own networks or even partnering with companies to create the infrastructure. The bill was eventually blocked after stiff opposition from several trade organizations and companies – including Google.
The bill would have prevented the expansion of Google Fiber, already in Kansas City, Missouri, into Kansas.
In some cases, bills were introduced to encourage municipal fiber optic expansion, but have been stranded in committee or otherwise delayed in various stages of the legislative process. Politicians are still buckling to the pressure of broadband providers to prevent any real competition into the market. However, their constituents are paying attention, and many are speaking up.
Not to mention, the FCC is watching.
After an appeals court threw out the FCC’s previous attempt at net neutrality in January, the Commission went back to the drawing board. Chairman Tom Wheeler stated that he would explore an option mentioned in the opinion of the lone dissenting judge. Judge Laurence Silberman wrote that while he agreed the FCC had failed to justify the rules they tried to impose, they did have legal authority to take other actions. Specifically he said “measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment. He further pointed out that “a paradigmatic barrier to infrastructure investment would be state laws that prohibit municipalities from creating their own broadband infrastructure to compete against private companies.”
In other words, the FCC has the authority to overrule the kind of laws that currently exist in 20 states with the power given to them by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Wheeler said he was open to reviewing the state laws and could have authority to overturn them if they violate the federal law. This would pave the way for companies like Google and city governments to pursue fiber optic expansion. This could be a much easier and quicker way to true net neutrality.
It’s just a matter of political will.