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In partnership with the Center for Popular Democracy, we have created a new policy brief: Building Community Broadband Access. We offer examples of communities that have acted to improve access by using smart strategies that facilitate community owned networks.
This fact sheet provides information to legislators, advocates, or concerned citizens who want to educate others about the benefits of publicly owned networks. This is the latest in our growing collection of convenient, compact, and instructive fact sheets.
The Center for Popular Democracy works with a long list of local, state, and national groups to exercise grass-roots democracy.
In 2011, Comcast commenced its Internet Essentials program with great fanfare from then FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. We looked at the program in detail and described Comcast's decision to withhold the program for two years to use as a carrot in a bid to secure the NBC merger. In addition to acquiring NBC, Comcast received great public relations press.
The Roosevelt Institute's Next New Deal Blog, recently ran an article by John Randall in which he examined the program in depth. He concludes that the program is an effective distraction from the real problem - lack of competition. In addition to placating policy makers to prevent meaningful changes, the program turns a hefty profit for Comcast and efficiently mines for new customers.
The program, touted as a way to reduce the digital divide, established onerous criteria to qualify for the $9.95 monthly service. Children in the household must qualify for the National School Lunch Program, there cannot be any unfinished business between the household and Comcast, participants must be new customers, and households must be located in an area served by Comcast.
I have had my own experience with the Internet Essentials program. My small family qualified and we now receive up to 3/1 Mbps from Comcast; prior to the program, we paid twice as much for 1 Mbps Wi-Fi. Randall is correct when he describes the program as a "customer acquisition program." A common expression goes "The slowest speed you will accept is the fastest speed you've experienced." So true. As more of my kids' homework depends on a usable Internet connection, we will need to sacrifice somewhere else to keep our 3 Mbps and we will do it. Our choices are limited because competition is scarce, even though we live in a major metropolitan area. Comcast, you have us. Nicely played!
If Comcast really wanted to help close the digital divide, it would make Internet Essentials a permanent program and ease the restrictions. I qualify because my kids qualify but there are millions of other people, including single adults and seniors, who do not and they need the Internet just as much as I do.
The Obama administration allocated $7 billion to broadband expansion as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. Most of it went to build physical networks.
Susan Crawford sat down with Bill Moyers to talk about Internet access in America. The two touch on net neutrality, the digital divide, and how access is now a critical component to our economic development.
In the words of Bill Moyers, "This is pretty strong stuff." Bill and Susan also talk about how we have come to this point through lack of competition advanced by telecommunications companies' lobbying and legislative ennui.
They spend some time looking at Lafayette, Louisiana, one of the cities that we covered in our 2012 case study, Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks. The two also dig into ways policy change can improve access and efforts we can all make to heighten awareness of the issue. This is a great discussion for any one, regardless of their place on the Internet access learning curve.
The UC2B project broke ground in the fall of 2011 and is a joint effort by the cities of Urbana and Champaign and the University of Illinois. The project is funded with a $22.5 million federal stimulus grant, a $3 million grant from the state of Illinois, and a list of other grants from local agencies.
From the beginning, the project policy board resolved to set aside funding from the network to address the local digital divide. According to a Janelle O'Dea article in the Daily Illini, 2-5 percent of the annual revenue from the network will go into this fund. The policy board is now fielding ideas from the public. There will be a series of community meetings and the first brought several ideas. From the article:
Meeting attendees presented several ideas for how to spend the fund. Some suggested purchasing new computers for resident use and training residents to use computers.
Artice James, president of the Champaign chapter of the National Council of African-American Men, suggested using the funds to provide job training for the installation of fiber optic material to area homes. James said he hoped many of these jobs will employ minority residents.
Alkalimat also commented on the issue of creating permanent jobs for Champaign-Urbana residents. He said he could see potential for creating a group similar to Best Buy’s Geek Squad.
UC2B's approach brings more people to the network in a self-nourishing fashion. The local community knows where the digital divide is in their area. Funding and decisions come from the people who will live with the benefits of the network. UC2B is another example of how local communities can build networks to effectively address the digital divide.
Recently, we covered the city-owned fiber optic network in Princeton, Illinois. The network has been serving city facilities, schools, libraries, and businesses since late 2003. The network contributes to economic development by delivering high capacity telecommunications services at affordable prices to local businesses. The City built and owns the network but services are delivered by a private sector partner.
Princeton is also working to bridge the digital divide in its community. The city offers an inexpensive Broadband Over Power Lines (BPL) service to residents and small businesses, using the municipal electricial grid.
BPL was once touted as a great hope for rural connectivity. The technology allows users to send telecommunications over the electrical lines already in place across the country. After several deployments revealed problems with radio interference, performance issues, and unreliability, the great hope considerably dimmed. However, the technology still has its place.
BPL lives on in Princeton as a supplement to its fiber network. According to Jason Bird, Director of Utilities, subscribers like being able to access the Internet from any room in their home that has an electric outlet. Capacity is very limited - only 1 Mbps service for residential service - but the price is right for those who do not have a large demand for speed. Residential service is $24.95 per month and commercial service is $99.00 per month.
The technology was attractive to the city utility because it was economical and quick to install. Prior to the BPL network, most people in town still used dial-up. As we reported in our post on Princeton's fiber network, the city has forged a long relationship with IVNet, an Illinois ISP. The BPL network is another successful joint project that has been helpful to the community. The two shared the cost of constructing the BPL network and profits are shared with IVNet retaining 70% of the profits.
AT&T and others regularly woo their regulators and policymakers with promises to built increase investments or expand networks in return for deregulation or merger approval. A recent Gerry Smith Huffington Post article examines a familiar pattern of broken promises made by telcos, what has developed into a chronic wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am attitude by these massive corporations.
We actually have a name for this, Kushnick's Law: "A regulated company will always renege on promises to provide public benefits tomorrow in exchange for regulatory and financial benefits today."
Smith revisits promises made back in 2006 when AT&T merged with BellSouth. AT&T promised to roll out broadband to every customer in its territory by 2007. Tell that to Cedric Wiggins from rural Mississippi. From the article:
But five years after that deadline, Wiggins, 26, is still waiting. Inside his trailer, his only affordable Internet option is a sluggish dial-up modem that takes five minutes to load the online job listing sites he has visited since being laid-off as a truck driver in May. Every few months, he calls AT&T to ask when he will receive a faster connection. The answer never changes.
“They said they don’t offer it in my area right now,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do.”
Smith found that promises made to gain merger approval are traditionally broken and/or so weakly constructed that the players can comply with little or no effort. Empty promises continue to be accepted by the feds and conveniently forgotten, except people like Wiggins.
No one knows the pattern better than those on the inside:
“We have a problem at the commission, historically, with following-up on merger conditions,” said Michael Copps, who served on the FCC from 2001 to 2011, and who voted to approve the AT&T-BellSouth merger. “A lot of these conditions that get attached are not that great, and they are not always really enforced.”