Community Internet Under Attack

Posted by Mitchell - September 3, 2005 (entry 354)

(originally published in the September 2005 issue of Z Magazine)

Who might control the future of high-speed Internet? Will it be municipalities and communities that can make the Internet into a widespread and affordable public service like electricity or running water [--] or big cable and telecommunications companies, like SBC, Comcast, and Verizon, who would redline communities and inflate prices to maximize profit?

On the one hand, citizens across the United States can now set up their own affordable municipal Internet initiatives where entire communities can achieve high- speed Internet connectivity at relatively low cost, thanks to increasingly affordable technologies like under-the-ground copper wiring and wireless connections. On the other hand, in the wake of a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, major cable and telecommunications companies have been lobbying state legislatures to make such initiatives illegal, or legal only under highly constrained conditions. These companies rally under the banner of “telecom reform” in order to gain captured markets for themselves.

As of July 2005, big telecom and cable companies, armed with battalions of lobbyists, have pressured state legislatures with dubious arguments involving “lazy public utilities” and “unfair competition” to get anti-municipal Internet laws passed in 14 states. But also in 2005, communities have rallied against these corporate Goliaths to preserve their rights to establish community Internet infrastructure on their terms and costs—and they have been winning.

As of mid-2005, seven states have successfully repelled attempts at blocking or maiming community Internet initiatives and other communities have made considerable strides.

Illinois

A citizens’ group called Fiber For Our Future worked in three Chicago suburbs to pass a referendum to establish municipal broadband in suburbs of Batavia, Geneva, and St. Charles. The referendum came up for a vote in 2003 and 2004. Both times the referendum was subjected to a massive corporate scare campaign from SBC and Comcast, and twice the referendum narrowly lost at the ballot box .

In the wake of these losses, a coalition of grassroots Illinois organizations—including consumer rights’ groups, community technology groups, faith leaders, local government officials, and Fiber For Our Future—met and organized under the coalition name Get Illinois Online. The coalition quickly faced a test in the Illinois General Assembly, which was poised to rewrite the main state law concerning telephones and the Internet, the Illinois Telecommunications Act.

One bill, which would have eliminated community Internet, was introduced in February 2005—then got pulled from consideration for reasons that remain unclear. It should be noted that, at around this same time, organizers worked to bring increased attention to the bill and coalition activists planned to testify against it. The coalition continued to work: Illinois organizers convened forums throughout the state, lobbied to maintain the rights of community Internet in Chicago, and successfully blocked an increasingly pro-corporate rewrite of the Illinois Telecommunications Act in spite of its passage in the Illinois [Senate].

Texas

SBC, headquartered in San Antonio, is Texas’s leading spender in state lobbying costs and stood to gain tremendously from gaining a captured Internet market in its home state. Its main legislative vehicle was an amendment introduced at the Texas legislature, HB 789, which would ban cities from offering their own high-speed Internet access. SBC alone deployed more than 100 lobbyists — one for every two Texas state legislators — to rally support for the bill.

Despite the alignment of such massive forces, an impressive popular counter-alignment formed in response, including an email list called Texas Muni Action, and a website — savemuniwireless.org — that chronicled the progress of the bill and the swirling political fight around it. The coalition partners in Texas included a number of Texas cities, an assortment of local public interest groups, and even some companies in the technology industry including Texas companies like Dell and Texas Instruments.

The Texas House passed HB 789 in March [2005], but in the Senate popular forces delayed the legislation by organizing and voicing sharp opposition in testimony before the Senate. That helped stymie the anti-municipal Internet provisions in the bill before the Texas legislature concluded its 2005 session. Still, in July 2005, there was one last attempt from big telecom: Texas governor Rick Perry called for a special session of the legislature and thereby extended the time the assembly could work. The municipal Internet issue was added to the agenda, but because of fights on an assortment of other issues, the session passed no limitations on municipal Internet in Texas.

Louisiana

Louisiana was one of the 14 states that passed legislation to restrict municipal Internet rights. As a result of 2005 legislation, Louisiana now requires a referendum for any community to establish a municipal Internet backbone. The Louisiana town of Lafayette, population 116,000, took up the challenge and called a referendum as required by law.

On one side, the Lafayette local government and community groups like Lafayette Coming Together worked to mobilize support, and multiple citizen websites like lafayetteprofiber.com and fibre911.com offered commentary and progress reports on the issue. On the other side were Bellsouth and Cox, the incumbent telecommunications and cable companies, whose formula for defeating the referendum was to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

Both sides ran active campaigns for the referendum, which was held on July 16, 2005 and deemed at the time to be a bellwether for similar future referenda. The result gained worldwide attention, as Lafayette voters approved the fiber initiative by 62 percent to 38 percent, thus effectively clearing the path for a fiber-to-the-home initiative for Lafayette residents.

Recipe for Victory

We can also count community Internet victories on the state level in Iowa, West Virginia, Oregon, and Indiana. From these struggles, we can learn a number of lessons for organizers and citizens to consider in future struggles for community Internet:

* Continue on in spite of apparent losses. Fiber For Our Future organizers lost their referendum, twice, yet provided crucial contributions to later statewide initiatives which succeeded. Moreover, the effort helped other initiatives across the United States, both directly, by providing testimony and coverage at key points in various campaigns, and indirectly, by setting an example of a grassroots campaign that fought for what it believed.

* Promote the issue in any and every forum you can. The companies fighting against community Internet can be counted among the major media in the United States, and also serve as a source of major advertising dollars for other major media corporations. As a result, Big Media tends not to give the issue of community Internet initiatives much sympathetic coverage — or, for that matter, any coverage at all. Thus, community organizers must become their own media and use whatever available media there are to raise awareness of the issue. Such available media may not have the cachet of Big Media outlets, but still can go quite far in helping get the word out.

* Set up communications infrastructure among organizers. Many campaigns have built their own online mailing lists, websites, blogs, newsfeeds, and other tools to share information and news about ongoing campaigns, especially in a realm like community Internet, where struggles change rapidly.

* Realize the weapons of the other side. Big Media have lied often in order to bolster their case, mainly because many times they have no case. One such example is a Verizon “fact sheet” passed among legislators in Washington, which cited many supposed community Internet “failures.” A study by the media activist group Free Press showed that when the claims were given the most basic examination, they withered almost immediately.

* Join forces with unexpected allies. One extraordinary facet of this issue is that it dissolves typical political lines. Both “red states” like Texas and Louisiana and “blue states” like Illinois have worked to defend community Internet rights. Moreover, different constituencies within and across states have collaborated in assorted campaigns. An organization of Chicago-area ministers known as the Ministerial Alliance Against the Digital Divide (www.maadd.org) joined the Get Illinois Online coalition. The forces fighting in Texas included computer corporations like Dell, Intel, and Texas Instruments.

Larger Stakes

In response to these local and statewide victories, big cable and big telecom have begun to take this to the federal level. On May 26, 2005, U.S. House Representative Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas, introduced the “Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act of 2005,” a federal bill which would abolish the rights of states and municipalities nationwide in one fell swoop. Not coincidentally, Pete Sessions used to work for SBC and at the time he introduced the bill his wife still worked for SBC; he also held about $500,000 in SBC stock options.

Fortunately, a bill to counter Sessions’s bill has been introduced in response. Two senators, New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg and Republican Senator John McCain have introduced the “Community Broadband Act of 2005,” which would overturn all state-level legislation banning municipal Internet. Unfortunately, since the battle has been moved out of the state level and into the federal level, the struggle is now more between competing industries—cable and telecom versus computers and software—and less of those most impacted by these laws.

The importance of the victories can’t be overstated, particularly in the wake of a 2005 Supreme Court ruling which may prove critical to the future of the Internet. The case is called the Brand X case, referring to an Internet service provider in California that sued the Federal Communications Commission over discriminatory policies concerning network access; Brand X lost in the Supreme Court. What this decision could mean is that what had been understood as a public resource — the connecting infrastructure of the Internet — now can fall under private carriage. Since the current cable/telecom duopoly in the U.S. is responsible for some 98 percent of broadband connections, those connections that fall outside that duopoly may remain the only free remaining Internet platform.

Then there’s the digital divide, which community Internet initiatives also address. Forty percent of homes currently have no Internet access and the trajectory of the spread of the Internet is leveling off. Meanwhile, many local government and community resources are migrating services to an online-only arrangement amid budget cuts. The importance of the Internet as a communicative medium in other ways will only increase.

Certain communities are left behind, frequently along class lines, by incumbent Internet providers over concerns of profitability. Community Internet initiatives may help to provide that necessary public service and even a leveling effect. The future of community Internet is not set in stone but rather in wet cement and, as we’ve seen, the current trend is to organize and win—a trend that will hopefully grow.

Mitchell Szczepanczyk (www.szcz.org) is an organizer with Chicago Media Action, and a contributor for assorted Chicago community media projects in print, web, radio, and television.

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