It’s Time to Nationalize the Internet

To counter the FCC’s attack on net neutrality, we need to start treating the Internet like the public good it is.

Julianne Tveten

Network cables are plugged in a server room on November 10, 2014 in New York City. U.S. President Barack Obama called on the Federal Communications Commission to implement a strict policy of net neutrality and to oppose content providers in restricting bandwith to customers. (Photo by Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images)

Defy­ing wide­spread pop­u­lar objec­tion, on Decem­ber 14 the Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (FCC) vot­ed to repeal net neu­tral­i­ty. The prin­ci­ple reg­u­lates broad­band as a util­i­ty, thus for­bid­ding cable com­pa­nies and Inter­net ser­vice providers (ISPs) from throt­tling, block­ing or oth­er­wise dis­crim­i­nat­ing against online traf­fic. While net neu­tral­i­ty was only enact­ed in ear­ly 2015, it swift­ly proved a key com­po­nent of an open Internet.

Private network providers prioritize only those they expect to provide a return on investment, thus excluding poor and sparsely populated areas.

While the assault on net neu­tral­i­ty is for­mi­da­ble, it’s not with­out for­mal oppo­si­tion. The Repub­li­can-helmed FCC’s two Demo­c­rat Com­mis­sion­ers, Mignon Clyburn and Jes­si­ca Rosen­wor­cel, have cen­sured the deci­sion and urged dis­sent. A num­ber of state attor­neys gen­er­al — includ­ing those in New York, Cal­i­for­nia, and Illi­nois — have vowed to sue the FCC over the rul­ing. Con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats, shep­herd­ed by Mass. Sen. Ed Markey, plan to file leg­is­la­tion to reverse the repeal.

Rely­ing on such reac­tive reg­u­la­to­ry appeals to her­ald the fight for a fair Inter­net, how­ev­er, won’t guar­an­tee one. The FCC’s revo­ca­tion of net neu­tral­i­ty isn’t a call to mere­ly restore the tech­no­crat­ic 2015 rules, but to reclaim the Inter­net as a pub­lic good to which all have the right to access. 

The Inter­net was ini­tial­ly a prod­uct of pub­lic spend­ing. The U.S. Defense Depart­ment first con­ceived it in the 1960s, fol­low­ing a peri­od of fever­ish tech­no­log­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion with the Sovi­et Union. By the ear­ly 1990s, the gov­ern­ment ced­ed con­trol of the Inter­net to the pri­vate sec­tor, which had the puta­tive capac­i­ty to host its rapid growth. Since then, the tran­si­tion to cor­po­rate stew­ard­ship has strat­i­fied the dig­i­tal land­scape and iso­lat­ed dis­en­fran­chised populations.

Con­sid­er the monop­o­liza­tion of ISPs. Because dif­fer­ent net­work providers, such as AT&T and Com­cast, sell broad­band to dis­crete geo­graph­ic regions with lit­tle over­lap, they have immense pow­er to manip­u­late speeds and charge pro­hib­i­tive­ly expen­sive rates. Com­cast, the nation’s largest pri­vate broad­band provider, is noto­ri­ous for over­charg­ing its users and sti­fling speeds. Users and politi­cians alike echo these con­cerns for oth­er ISPs on a seem­ing­ly reg­u­lar basis, ren­der­ing the tele­com indus­try one of the country’s most reviled.

Such prof­i­teer­ing tac­tics have dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly affect­ed low-income and rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. ISPs have long red­lined these demo­graph­ic groups, cre­at­ing what’s com­mon­ly known as the dig­i­tal divide.” Thir­ty-nine per­cent of Amer­i­cans lack access to ser­vice fast enough to meet the fed­er­al def­i­n­i­tion of broad­band. More than 50 per­cent of adults with house­hold incomes below $30,000 have home broad­band — a prob­lem plagu­ing users of col­or most acute­ly. In con­trast, inter­net access is near-uni­ver­sal for house­holds with an annu­al income of $100,000 or more.

The rea­son for such chasms is sim­ple: Pri­vate net­work providers pri­or­i­tize only those they expect to pro­vide a return on invest­ment, thus exclud­ing poor and sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed areas.

Pre­vi­ous­ly, the gov­ern­ment has inter­vened, requir­ing tele­coms to prof­fer dis­count­ed ser­vice to low-income areas. These ini­tia­tives, how­ev­er, have fall­en short. In 2016, AT&T intro­duced low-cost region­al broad­band for Fed­er­al Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP) users, an FCC-man­dat­ed con­di­tion of its merg­er with DirecTV. To receive the ser­vice, users had to live in neigh­bor­hoods that could accom­mo­date a min­i­mum speed of three megabits per sec­ond (Mbps). The sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple whose address­es didn’t meet that cri­te­ria, mean­while, were forced to either pay full price or forego access. (The Nation­al Dig­i­tal Inclu­sion Alliance detailed the company’s egre­gious redlin­ing of impov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties in Cleveland.)

Chat­tanooga, Tenn. has seen more suc­cess in address­ing redlin­ing. Since 2010, the city has offered pub­lic broad­band via its munic­i­pal pow­er orga­ni­za­tion, Elec­tric Pow­er Board (EPB). The project has become a rous­ing suc­cess: At half the price, its ser­vice is approx­i­mate­ly 85 per­cent faster than that of Com­cast, the region’s pri­ma­ry ISP pri­or to EPB’s incep­tion. Cou­pled with a dis­count­ed pro­gram for low-income res­i­dents, Chattanooga’s pub­licly run broad­band reach­es about 82,000 res­i­dents — more than half of the area’s Inter­net users — and is only expect­ed to grow.

Chattanooga’s achieve­ments have radi­at­ed to oth­er locales. More than 450 com­mu­ni­ties have intro­duced pub­licly-owned broad­band. And more than 110 com­mu­ni­ties in 24 states have access to pub­licly owned net­works with one giga­bit-per-sec­ond (Gbps) ser­vice. (AT&T, for exam­ple, has yet to intro­duce speeds this high.) Seat­tle City Coun­cilmem­ber Kshama Sawant pro­posed a pilot project in 2015 and has recent­ly urged her city to invest in munic­i­pal broad­band. Hawaii con­gressper­son Kaniela Ing is draft­ing a bill for pub­licly-owned Inter­net for the state leg­is­la­ture to con­sid­er next year. In Novem­ber, res­i­dents of Fort Collins, Colo. vot­ed to autho­rize the city to build munic­i­pal broad­band infrastructure.

The Fort Collins vote reveals a widen­ing aper­ture between pub­lic needs and cor­po­rate ISPs’ inter­ests. The state of Col­orado—among oth­ers—pro­hibits cities from build­ing munic­i­pal broad­band infra­struc­ture. In many cas­es, such pro­hi­bi­tions can be traced to tele­com-spon­sored leg­is­la­tors. Yet in Col­orado, 31 coun­ties have protest­ed the stric­tures such lob­by­ing has pro­duced, and it’s like­ly that oth­er state res­i­dents, if giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to weigh in, won’t be far behind.

City-oper­at­ed net­works have the pow­er to increase speeds, decrease costs and broad­en avail­abil­i­ty. Yet restor­ing pub­lic broad­band own­er­ship can’t be a piece­meal munic­i­pal effort, as hordes of com­mu­ni­ties will con­tin­ue to be neglect­ed. Rather, pub­lic own­er­ship must be won on a nation­al lev­el to erad­i­cate ISP lob­by­ing and monop­o­lies, and cor­po­rate ISPs them­selves, thus guar­an­tee­ing uni­ver­sal access.

The poten­tial absence of net neu­tral­i­ty is sim­ply a symp­tom of an unfet­tered free mar­ket — the corol­lary to decades of pri­va­tized net­work providers’ free rein to over­charge and under­serve. Advo­cat­ing for the preser­va­tion of net neu­tral­i­ty is nec­es­sary, but it won’t suf­fice if equi­table inter­net access is to be achieved. Under such high stakes, it’s time to regain the dig­i­tal infra­struc­ture that could have — and always should have — been ours. 

Julianne Tveten writes about tech­nol­o­gy, labor, and cul­ture, among oth­er top­ics. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Cap­i­tal & Main, KPFK Paci­fi­ca Radio, and elsewhere.
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