Yes! Magazine - November 22nd, 2017
Written by Sammi-Jo Lee
In the face of net neutrality rule repeal, media outlets are exploring what communities can do to prevent paid prioritization all the way down to the smallest of ISPs. Yes! Magazine's Sammi-Jo Lee explored the issue of Internet cooperatives and what role they can play both in providing Internet access and protecting net neutrality via market forces.
For her story, Lee interviewed MuniNetworks' Christopher Mitchell:
These locally owned networks are poised to do what federal and state governments and the marketplace couldn’t. One, they can bring affordable access to fast internet to anyone, narrowing the digital divide that deepens individual and regional socioeconomic disparities.
Two, these small operators can protect open internet access from the handful of large ISPs that stand to pocket the profits from net neutrality rollbacks that the Trump administration announced Nov. 21. That’s according to Christopher Mitchell, who is the director of Community Broadband Projects, a project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Mitchell, who has been tracking and advocating community-owned broadband networks for a decade, hopes that this will be the moment when people rebel against the administration’s attack on net neutrality and expand rural cooperative and municipal ISPs.
“The FCC is basically taking the regulations off of big companies, but local companies can still offer high-quality internet access at good prices,” Mitchell says.
Without net neutrality, broadband providers will be able to charge more for better access and faster speeds, or be able to restrict traffic to preferred business partners over competitors. More independent ISPs can offer consumers a wider variety of choices.
But, for many, before the question of open internet and net neutrality comes the question of whether people can have access to and afford the internet at all.“No one will have to offer prioritized content in the ways that we fear AT&T and Comcast will. So local investments can preserve access to the open internet,” Mitchell says. ...
ILSR estimates that there are more than 300 telephone and electric co-ops that provide rural fiber-optic internet service. Since the late 1990s, these co-ops have been installing more cable and leveraging existing infrastructure to provide faster service to their communities. A few have even built networks from scratch, such as RS Fiber in Minnesota and Allband in Michigan. ...
Though unequal access is primarily thought of as a rural problem, itaffects urban centers, as well. ILSR estimates 90 cities are connected with high-quality municipal networks, while more than 200 are connected with more basic networks.
“Customers want reliable, fast, and inexpensive service. The market is not solving this problem,” says Deb Socia, the executive director of Next Century Cities, which works with 183 mayors across the country in hatching plans to fund locally based solutions.
“The biggest dilemma for cities is that there has been an erosion of the capacity for communities to solve their own problems, and that has happened primarily at the state and federal level,” Socia says. Some networks, like the one in Ammon, Idaho, lease their networks to other providers. Others, like the one in Chattanooga, Tennessee, sell services like a conventional ISP.
“There are a lot of workable models,” says Mitchell, “and whatever is right for the local culture and the local government capacity is probably the best way forward.”
Cobbling together local solutions is the common challenge across all of these community projects, says Mitchell, whether it’s cracking the funding code, slashing through governmental red tape, or cultivating enthusiastic leadership to convince communities that, in order to have their own internet service provider, it’s worth it to try something new.
Looking down the road, Mitchell believes that a strong network of small, competitive community-owned ISPs is possible. By siphoning revenue away from the monopoly ISPs, they could disrupt their ability to dominate their markets. And also, if net neutrality does indeed get rolled back, competition could make it less appealing for large ISPs to restrict content.
“I would say that if we had a flourishing of these local networks, it would still significantly hurt the ability of Comcast and AT&T to create tollbooths” to prioritize content, Mitchell says. “It’s going to be fascinating to see what’s going to happen in coming years.”