I. The Premise: The right to own our Internet connections.
In the 21st Century, the Internet is the most important tool we all have for our freedom of speech. So it’s important to answer the question: who really owns the Internet? One answer might be found in the Comcast and NBC merger that is currently being fought out in Congress. This is just the latest example of an Internet provider (in this case the second largest one) seeking to control online media content and access. At the same time, they are also fighting the FCC and Congress against Network Neutrality, regulations that affect every single Internet Service Provider (or ISP for short) nationally. They don’t want regulators to interfere with their ability to pick and choose online media winners. If they get to pick the winners, then all of us will be the losers, especially when it comes to our individual freedom of speech.
Even if you don’t live in a Comcast service area right now, your current telephone and cable owners will follow their example. If you don’t like the media content your cable picks, you will only be able to switch to content that your telephone ISP favors. In the end, you will only have full speed bandwidth to companies that pay your ISP for the privilege.
II. The Problem: Nobody owns their connections right now.
So who really owns our connections to the Internet now? It’s certainly not us! The truth is: we rarely have any choice over our connections to the outside world, except for the choice of where we live. A short list of local broadcasters, one telephone company, and one cable company choose our homes, often before we move into them. If another company decides to come along and buy out a local provider, we don’t have any real control over that either.
In Los Angeles, DWP owns our pipes and our electrical mains, but we expect DWP to work in our best interest, through local voter controls over their activities. The giant telephone and cable incumbents have none of the same local voter responsibilities, except in the form of broad industry regulations.
The only connection to the outside world that we really own is our driveways. They give us access to a grid of local city streets, state highways, and national interstates. A larger array of transportation systems connect us to the entire world. Everyone has an equal vote over shared road issues, and we all must obey the rules of the road.
Right now there are no driveways nor surface streets onto the “Internet Super Highway.” We can’t even connect to our next door neighbors without going all the way to their “Highway” and back, and we always have to pay a toll along the way.
It’s pretty clear by now that nobody is going to build any “Internet surface streets” for us. Forcing all of us out onto their toll roads is way too lucrative. Without surface streets to connect to, any driveways we build are useless. We will have to find some way to make these streets for ourselves, but we certainly don’t have to do it alone. Almost every American is in the same situation right now.
III. Two Potential Near-Term Solutions: Google’s 1Gbps Fiber Experiment, and Internet Service Cooperatives.
1. Google recently released news that they will be deploying a lot of gigabit fiber Internet connections in America this year, as an experiment in high-speed Internet Services. They have welcomed responses from local government and members of the public, using their online “Request For Information” (RFI) forms. They are taking all submissions until March 26th. They will use these responses to help them decide where to install fiber, to find out the best installation methods, and even to help decide payment structure.
Please use Google’s RFI forms if you want to help make sure that they get all the information they need, and to let them know that the North East Los Angeles community is an excellent choice for their experiment. An incremental payment path to fiber line ownership should be encouraged to Google, so that home owners are given the chance to finally own their connections to the world. It is not clear that Google wants to provide ISP services in the long term, so they may welcome a path towards giving more responsibility to home owners.
2. A Non-Profit Utility and Communications Cooperative, as defined by Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(12). These co-operatives exist to bring basic services to under-served communities at cost, or to provide superior services for less cost than for-profit corporations. All Cooperative Utility subscribers must also be equal voting members and, unlike for-profit telephone and cable operations, cooperatives are required to share services and cost savings in a manner that benefits all members equally.
A neighborhood cooperative could create a network of “Internet surface streets,” and help local home owners make their own “driveways” onto that network. Two complimentary technologies that could enable private network development today are: wireless mesh networks, and wired conduits along fence lines. These “Internet surface streets and driveways” would increase home value, and decrease bandwidth costs over time.