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Reaction to the FCC Decisions, Dissent, and Next Steps - Community Broadband Bits Episode 141
After the FCC decisions to remove barriers to community networks and to reclassify Internet access as a Title II service to enforce network neutrality rules, Lisa and I spend some time discussing the decision and reactions to it. We also discuss my presentation at Freedom to Connect, where I offer some thoughts on what communities can do in the long term to ensure we end scarcity and the corporate monopoly model of Internet access.
Though we will continue to fight against barriers to local choice and work to ensure every community has the authority to choose the model that best fits it, we plan to spend more time examining how Internet access can be built as infrastructure rather than as for a specific service from a single provider.
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Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."
Chris: We're not always going to have an FCC that's this good. And so, I hope we can both get what we can out of it, but also need to recognize that we need to still have local control over the networks, so we're not just depending on the FCC to protect us.
Lisa: Hey, there, everybody. Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Today, Chris and I have switched roles a little bit. He's been traveling all over the country lately. He's going to tell us a little bit about his travels lately. And the first place that he went to -- and I'm sure that everybody is not surprised to hear this -- he was in DC. And, Chris, what were you doing there?
Chris: Well, I was able to attend the open meeting of the Federal Communications Commission, where they discussed the muni petitions from Chattanooga and Wilson, as well as the net neutrality decision. And I was actually in the room, watching it unfold. It was pretty incredible.
Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. I watched a little bit -- well, I watched the whole thing, actually, from afar. But tell us a little bit about that. Describe what it was like. What did it feel like?
Chris: Well, it felt quite historic. And it also felt really fun, because I was sitting next to Bill Vallee and Harold Feld -- sitting between the two of them. And I think they're two of the best senses of humor in our line of work. So ...
Lisa: Oh, God. Harold's tweets were hilarious.
Chris: [laughs] Yeah. And so, you know, I was sitting there, watching their discussions. Even when they came in, actually, it was the three commissioners that have been supporting our positions all along -- Commissioners Rosenworcel, Clyburn, and Chairman Wheeler. And they came in and were clearly in a good mood. And they had actually grabbed hands at one point. And there's some photos that came from that. But it was rather entertaining, because I gather that Commissioner Clyburn is often the last one to enter. And this time, the three commissioner that were there first, and happened to be waiting for the other two, were the ones that were all united on all the matters that they discussed that day.
Lisa: I was wondering about that. I remember them joking about that. And I was wondering -- I knew there had to be more to that.
Chris: Yes. So, you know, I mean, I don't know -- you know, we're not very close FCC watchers at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. We try to focus on what's happening outside of DC. So, it was -- I was trying to figure out what was normal and what wasn't ...
Lisa: Uh huh.
Chris: ... as we went.
Lisa: The decision came down. The laws in Tennessee and North Carolina were overturned.
Chris: Just to make sure people are clear on what happened, right now, Chattanooga can offer telephone service anywhere in the state. But it can only offer Internet service within its electric boundaries. Cities that do not have an electric utility -- they actually can't offer services at all. They're totally preempted by the state. So the decision in Tennessee is basically one that will only really impact the municipal electrics there.
The decision in North Carolina seems to go much further, and it will impact all the cities in the state, we believe. But, as of now, we still have not seen the final rules. So we don't actually know. But the sense that we've gotten is that, basically, North Carolina will be going back to a state it was in before 2011, when they passed the "Time Warner Cable Rules" that pretty much took local self-reliance and local choice away from communities.
Lisa: So, the situation in North Carolina is different than the situation in Tennessee. So, during the discussion about municipal networks, and the laws in Tennessee and North Carolina, was there anything in particular that you saw that you thought was interesting?
Chris: Well, it was really nice to see the -- some of the people that had made the trip up. Some people from just outside of Chattanooga's boundary, for instance. The gentleman from Holly Springs that we had interviewed on our podcast previously. They were in the room. And they were there, hoping that they would get a favorable decision, of course. And the Chairman actually acknowledged their presence, and explained why they were in the room. Because this would be so historic and so beneficial for them. But what -- the most interesting moment for me, during the whole thing, was when Commissioner O'Rielly was dissenting, and saying that he thought the FCC should not be taking this action. He said -- he claimed that when he sat down with people from Wilson, that they had said that the state law wasn't that bad, and that it wasn't a barrier for them. And I leaned back in my chair to look across the room. And I caught Will's eyes -- Will Aycock, who is the person that runs the Greenlight network, ...
Lisa: Um hum.
Chris: ... the General Manager for the Greenlight network, I believe -- and he just -- he shook his head "no," like I have no idea what this guy is claiming. So, I thought it was a rather interesting moment. I also thought that Commissioner Pai was remarkably clear. And I'd have to go back and -- to see what he said again, but -- But he never really seemed to come out and say local governments shouldn't do this. He seemed to be just focused on this issue of laws and states and that sort of thing. And I thought that was interesting.
Lisa: So, let's talk a little bit more about Commissioners Pai and O'Rielly's opposition to network neutrality.
Chris: Yes. Sure. They were as long -- and I would describe it as being -- you know, there was significant parts that were very well ground[ed] in reasonable disagreement. And then, with these incredible leaps of just totally unreasonable claims. I mean, it would be like spending a lot of time talking about reasoned opposition to current NASA science policy, and then suddenly just throwing in that you thought the moon landing was faked, ...
Lisa: Um hum.
Chris: ... in terms of -- I mean, this whole bit about how this is Obama's plan, and Obama forced it through, and this and that. It’s LUNACY. I mean, it really is crazy. We had four million people commenting on this issue. You know. And President Obama was only one of the more recent ones to come around on it. So, you know, this idea that somehow the plan came out of the White House is crazy. And especially more so because it's not unusual for the White House to put comments on the public record when it comes to independent agencies. In fact, that's sort of how it's supposed to be done. The President is not supposed to have secret meetings. And I've seen no suggestion that he had. I just see that he made his opinion known. And that's what happened. And for some of the Republicans on this issue to be claiming that this is, you know, out of bounds is very odd. You know, I certainly understand why people may disagree about Title II. And I think it's totally incorrect to say that this is ancient authority, that this is somehow old-school regulation for a monopoly era. Like, I disagree with that. But I understand the argument. You know, the argument that the President was somehow impermissibly getting involved is just -- that's crazy talk. You know, maybe we'll have to come back to that in one of our Crazy Talk series.
Lisa: Right. [laughs] Well, you know, they -- I'm sure, it's just perpetuating this engine that they've had going for a long time -- you know, overreach, overreach.
Chris: I think so.
Lisa: They're always trying to pit the common people against this idea of being overly-governed.
Chris: Well, I'm worried about it, frankly. Because, you know, it's a similar sort of thing. There was a lot of things that people could disagree with during the healthcare debates. But there were no death panels. And the idea that there were death panels -- that poisoned the discussion. And that's the exact same strategy we seem to be seeing right here. And I've had that thought many times since that hearing, is, all of these crazy claims, about how this is Obamanet, and it's going to kill the investment, and this and that. You know, there's things you can say accurately, and things that I think are just dramatic overreach. And it worries me, because, when you hear the same message over and over again, that this is the government taking over the Internet. Well, it's totally incorrect, and it also has the effect, I think, of poisoning a lot of these discussions. Which is what the cable and telephone companies want. The cable and telephone companies don't want people on the left uniting with people on the right to oppose cable monopolies. And ...
Lisa: Right, because THEY want to be the ones to take over the Internet.
Chris: Exactly! That's just it. It's incredibly frustrating to see that some of the people on the right are falling for this idea that somehow, you know, letting Comcast be a gatekeeper would be pro freedom of speech. It's not correct.
Lisa: So, this decision was made. And you left DC. And you worked your way back onto the rails. Although into the sky is more accurate in this case. And ...
Chris: I rode some rails as well.
Lisa: Did you? Did you?
Chris: I did.
Lisa: OK. So, you went to Freedom to Connect in New York. I don't know if that was next, but that was, I think, the next big event you went to.
Chris: That's right. And I think my presentation -- I don't know if it's online yet, but it should be online soon. And we'll definitely have it on muninetworks.org when it's ready. But I gave a presentation there in which I talked about the need for -- to sort of think more broadly. And I feel like, for many cities, they don't want to recreate the cable model, you know. I think Wilson and Chattanooga, Lafayette -- these cities have done a good job. And they've done what they could. They've built networks without any taxpayer dollars. But, fundamentally, I think a lot of communities are trying to figure out what they can do without having to get into that level of detail. Without having to compete against the Comcasts and the Verizons and the AT&Ts and everyone. You know, cities want to build infrastructure. And so, I was proposing ways that cities could try and invest in passive infrastructure -- well, you know, dark fiber and open networks that would be open to multiple parties. And I discussed some of the challenges with that. And, fundamentally, I said, I think, that for the kind of networks we want to build, the kind of networks that are discussed at an event like Freedom to Connect, if we really want to live in that world, I don't think many of us are going to get there by trying to recreate the cable monopoly...
Lisa: Um hum.
Chris: And so that's something where I'm really curious to see where it goes.
Lisa: Did you feel like you got a good reaction? Were people -- did it really get people thinking? Or were people on-board? Or -- talk a little about that.
Chris: I'm still trying to figure that out. [laughs]
Chris: It's really hard to say. At a place like Freedom to Connect, there's so many interesting people, with so many good ideas, that it's hard to say whether you got your idea apart -- I haven't even watched the video myself. But I sometimes felt a little scattered. So -- what I was trying to do is plant a seed. And I hope, you know, that it resonated with some people. I heard from some people that it did. But, you know, it's -- this is going to be a multi-year process, as we figure out where to go in this. But I would say that, at Freedom to Connect, the mood was definitely much more jubilant about the network neutrality decision.
Lisa: Um hum.
Chris: And not even so much the decision itself as just the success of organizing people. Of getting four million people to care about something like this. You know, of seeing not just -- not just a certain, you know, class of people get interested, but seeing all the organizing that went into communities of color, to make sure that their voices were heard in Washington, DC. The organizing that went on among so many different groups that just haven't even gotten the credit yet. You know, there's so many people that did so much hard work, to make sure that this was not business-as-usual. And I think that was what almost everyone was celebrating at Freedom to Connect. Because, frankly, at Freedom to Connect, there was people who disagreed -- that felt like either Title II is incorrect or that it wasn't a big enough victory, that we should have had a -- you know, the FCC require unbundling, or other sorts of policies to promote competition. So, you know, not everyone was seeing the exact outcome as being success. But pretty much everyone was recognizing that this was a time to celebrate that we had raised our voices, as, you know, the public interest. And the non-cable-and-telephone lobbyists. And getting that voice heard.
Lisa: Yeah. And, you know, Catharine Rice and I had exchanged a few e-mails shortly after that. And she had referred to the whole situation as a victory. And she didn't necessarily -- she referred to it as a small victory but a victory. And that was what mattered.
Chris: You know, there's so much more work that needs to be done.
Lisa: Um hum.
Chris: I think we desperately need to stop the mergers. We need to make sure that when the rules come out with network neutrality, that they don't make it too difficult for small providers -- particularly munis -- to follow them.
Lisa: Um hum.
Chris: You know, this has been a concern from a number of munis and other small providers, that the FCC might craft rules that were more appropriate for large providers than small. So, you know, I think we're going to have to keep working with the FCC. And I'm thrilled to say that I feel that this FCC is more interested in working with us than any other FCC on these matters. It's worth noting that we have a rather powerful bloc in the public interest right now in the FCC. You know, Commissioner Clyburn has long fought for issues that were outside the limelight. Her work on prison phone justice. She supported municipal networks for so long. Commissioner Rosenworcel's been a voice for reforming the E-Rate program for our schools. And Chairman Tom Wheeler has done so much good in terms of trying to promote competition. This is one of those things. Everyone likes to say that they're for competition, and promoting competition. But I feel like the steps he's taken, on many decisions, have been really -- showing more consideration for the public interest than we're used to seeing out of the FCC. And it's worth noting that we're not always going to have an FCC that's this good. And so, I hope we can both get what we can out of it, but also recognize that we need to still have local control over networks, so we're not just depending on the FCC to protect us.
Lisa: Um hum. Definitely, we have to take advantage of this situation. I think you're right. Great! So, where are you going next?
Chris: I'm going to be in Los Angeles for two days, talking with some local governments in the LA region about what they can do. And then I'll be home for a while. My next trip after that will be to Des Moines, for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities. In the middle of March.
Lisa: Well, have safe travels. I'm sure I'll be talking to you.
Lisa: All right. Thanks, Chris. Talk to you later.
Chris: Yup. Thanks, Lis.
Lisa: Send us your ideas for the show. E-mail us at email@example.com . Remember to like us on Facebook. And follow us on Twitter. We are @communitynets . Thank you, once again, to Persson for the song, "Blues walk," licensed through Creative Commons. And thank you for listening. Have a great day.