By Tom Risen
People aren’t free online if the only choice they have is a slow signal controlled by a giant cable company, said speakers analyzing the future of broadband during the Freedom to Connect conference in Silver Spring, Md.
Network use is growing, but national wire line providers are resting on their laurels, said Blair Levin, a former Federal Communication Commission official who said this is the first time since the creation of the commercial Internet when there are no plans announced to build more advanced networks.
“In somewhere between three to five years the best network available to most Americans is the network they have today,” said Levin, who led the creation of a National Broadband Initiative to spread high-speed Internet to rural areas. “That’s not going to be true in a lot of other places.”
During his speech entitled “War on Community Broadband,” Larry Lessig said America faces a future of “sucky broadband” compared with other nations because companies see no incentive in offering cheaper, more effective broadband networks.
“The solution is competition,” said Lessig, founder of copyright management nonprofit Creative Commons.
Placing the issue alongside government policy threats to Internet freedom, conference organizer David Isenberg said independent networks had to develop outside of providers such as Comcast.
“Faster networks are valuable only when they let us choose,” Isenberg said. “If we have a 6MB cable TV channel that somebody else programmed and somebody else schedules, we only have 1 bit. It’s effectively on or off.”
Internet freedom advocates fear telecommunication access centralized in the hands of a few corporations such as Verizon-FiOS, which have terms of service that reserve the right to block data transmission or cut off service for any reason. Under these conditions phone calls cannot be blocked, but text messages can.
Communities in states such as North Carolina developed independent speedy networks, but Lessig said state assembly laws effectively blocked the development of networks by claiming cities would gain an unfair advantage over private sector providers.
“Is it unfair when the cities provide streetlights?” Lessig asked. “What economists have taught us is that infrastructure requires support of communities and governments to get the optimal amount of infrastructure.”
A solution to allow more Internet options at a lower price would be for the government to subsidize development of networks, said Susan Crawford, author of the upcoming book Capitive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. An estimated one-third of U.S. citizens do not have access to the Internet because of high billing costs, she said.
“This should be, as it is in Australia, a matter on which people are elected or not,” said Crawford, formerly a tech policy advisor for the Obama administration. “Cheap fiber access is going to transform everything we do as a country.”
Verizon-FiOS and Comcast are collaborating to divide telecommunications markets without seriously competing with each other, she said.
“We have a set of private monopolies without any regulation on them,” Crawford said.
Criticizing America’s decaying roadways, Michael Copps, former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, said government should treat development of the Internet as an infrastructure investment crucial to the nation’s global competition. The FCC’s unwillingness to allow start-up firms to compete with telecommunications companies is partly to blame for that lack of advanced network development.
“An industry-compliant FCC was more interested in blessing consolidation than it was in invigorating competition,” Copps said of his term with the FCC, which began in 2001 and included the 2011 merger between Comcast and NBC-Universal. “Broadband is indeed the front and center of infrastructure of the 21st century.”
To allow innovation of smaller, faster networks, Christopher Mitchell, director of Telecommunications as Commons Initiative, said laws in 19 states against the creation of independent networks need to be revised and anti-trust laws need to be enforced. This could give smaller broadband providers a chance to innovate despite overwhelming competition with the larger, and sometimes slower networks of companies such as Time Warner and Comcast.
“If you are getting cutting edge services, you are probably getting them from a small provider or a local government. The very first community to have access to a 1 GB-speed broadband connection was Chattanooga, Tenn.” Mitchell said. “Companies like Comcast are able to lowball community networks and drive them out of business before raising prices back up to where they are in every other community.”
Leslie Nulty said a fiberoptic server she arranged with her Internet-providing nonprofit Valley Net and the East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network in rural Barnard, Vt., allowed 23 local governments to have reliable connection to respond to damage caused by Hurricane Irene in August.
“If you’re long-established and you have local goodwill, you can survive the onslaught of Comcast, Time Warner, Cox, etc,” Nulty said. “We go where they ain’t. We can’t enter into direct competition with them.”