“The Battle Is Raging for Control of the Internet”

Chris Mitchell of muninetworks.com and his compatriot David Morris have published an article on Alternet and the title says it all: The Battle Is Raging for Control of the Internet — and Big Corporations May Come Out on the Losing Side. While I’m not so sure an upbeat conclusion is appropriate just yet what is encouraging is that there is, increasingly, a visible public position that maybe, just maybe, communities and not massive multinationals should control local telecommunications networks.

When Lafayette first joined battle with Cox and BellSouth (now merged into an even larger AT&T) the cry raised here for local control and independence simply had no national resonance. The idea that local activists and local officials had joined to raise a flag in Lafayette against what was widely regarded as parallel phone and cable monopolies was exciting because it was so unusual…and, well, quixotic. While widely reported, the conflict was also viewed as a David and Goliath story—and while few expected David to win, the colorful locals and bulldog-like persistence drew bemused interest.

That attitude is fading, no doubt in part because Lafayette proved that David actually could beat Goliath. And, having beat Goliath LUS went on to offer stunningly fast service for shockingly little money—just as the little “David” had claimed it could and would. Increasingly, in reportage and on commentary boards I see people mater-of-factly taking positions labeling the incumbents monopolies and asserting that local, utility control is obviously to be desired. That’s not everyone, nor even beyond a few places a majority opinion. But it is visible and insistent and that’s a sea-change for the better.

The first paragraph of “The Battle is Raging for Control” has Harlod DePriest head of Chattanooga’s fiber deployment reprising Terry Huval’s role when he rhetorically asks:

“Does our community control our own fate or does someone else control it?”

You are supposed to know the answer to that question…and that, DePriest clearly believes goes without needing to be said, means that you should support him and his utility’s fiber to the home system.

The article walks through the now familiar argument: the big incumbents don’t have local interest at heart, Federal action has failed to slow the consolidation of local monopolies into a very small cartel of major national players with an implicit pact to not compete locally, as competition falls prices rise, without competition there is little incentive for the incumbents to make the upgrades communities need to sustain clean, fair development and control of their future economies….locals can, and indeed must, take matters into their own hands.

Incumbents have little incentive to lay new fiber. Their monopoly position allows them to continue to reap high profits while amortizing their investments in old technologies.

And when they do lay in fiber we are at their mercy. Karl Bode, a longtime reporter on broadband, notes that Verizon, which has laid the most fiber, has a very low tolerance for “towns or cities asking for much of anything in negotiations.” Verizon shunned Boston when it was asked to pay property taxes like everybody else. Wilmington, Delaware was rejected because it wanted to ensure the company would serve the entire community, not just wealthier neighborhoods. Pointedly, Verizon serves the affluent suburbs of Seattle, Portland and Baltimore, but not the inner cities.

The article is well worth a read, but I close with a bit that uses the advantages Lafayette has brought to its community as an example of differences local ownership and control can make:

Cox Communications, famous in Louisiana for regular rate increases, froze its rates in Lafayette for several years following the city’s initial announcement that it would offer telecommunications services. Meanwhile Cox continued to raise its rates in other parts of the state. The result was that even before Lafayette’s system began operating it had saved its residents and businesses nearly $4 million.

Now that Lafayette is offering citywide services, it is teaching companies like Cox a thing or two about next-generation broadband. In addition to offering the best value in the country (the fastest speeds at the most affordable prices), everyone on the network gets the fastest possible speeds to others within the city’s local network (100Mbps). This approach is spurring a wave of innovation as entrepreneurs and local media activists take advantage of unprecedented speeds throughout the city. Others just enjoy the opportunity to work from home, accessing their local office network as though they were still in the building.

Community broadband networks also offer subscribers something that few private networks do: symmetrical speeds for both upload and download. Internet offerings of telephone and cable companies typically have upload speeds that are about one-tenth of download speeds. Rather than encouraging a purely consumptive approach to the Internet, symmetrical connections allow subscribers to produce content as well, a hallmark of the modern Internet.

We are quickly beginning to take our advantages for granted here in Lafayette. Articles like these remind us that most of the country still needs to replicate the success we are enjoying here.

3 thoughts on ““The Battle Is Raging for Control of the Internet””

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