DIY net neutrality: Can municipal broadband help protect internet freedom?
When you go online, you expect to be able to connect to whatever website you want, without your provider interfering with the data in any way.
That's network neutrality, the basic principle that prevents internet service providers like cable or phone companies from speeding up, slowing down, or blocking any content, apps, or websites you want to use.
In 2015, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted net neutrality rules that limited the power of service providers to block traffic, give preferential treatment to some products and services or offer faster service at additional cost.
But on Dec. 14, the FCC's Republican majority approved chairman Ajit Pai's plan to gut net neutrality protections. A former Verizon lawyer and Trump appointee, Pai ignored the widespread protests against the plan from millions across the U.S., including lawmakers and public interest groups.
This week, 21 U.S. state attorneys general announced a lawsuit against the FCC ruling. In the meantime, across North America, communities are opting out of "big telecom" and building their own broadband networks — on their own terms.
In Canada, Olds, Alta., Stratford, Ont., and Coquitlam, B.C. were all early adopters of the model, though access, cost and connection speed are often what motivates rural areas more than net neutrality concerns. In the U.S., both issues are now part of the equation.
"If you're in one of those communities, then it might be more important to you that there be a local option because a local option can preserve net neutrality but encourage other beneficial developments, like maintaining no data caps and making sure you're getting continuous upgrades, affordable service, things like that," says Christopher Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
"But if you happen to be in one of the majority areas of the United States where there's no such plans for a community-owned network, then you're probably paying more attention to the federal regulator issues."
Many communities are starting to look at installing their own municipal infrastructure, such as building a new network from scratch owned by the community or leased to a company to deliver internet services.
"The community doesn't have any power to compel providers to open their equipment to other providers, and so in some cases a city would have to build a new network in order to have any sort of say over it," Mitchell says.
"But another reason is many of the networks in our communities are old. So cities are looking to be the fastest or to at least be in the top percentile of network speeds. That requires new infrastructure — so they build it."
Local governments view that infrastructure as part of the overall economic health of a community.
"In many ways, we're talking more about the roads of the future," Mitchell says. "Electricity did a lot to improve productivity, but these digital networks are the roads that impact our commerce, our culture, our ability to go places virtually. So I think of them as being the roads of the 21st century."
Fort Collins, Colo. is one community in the U.S. building a new fibre-optic network.
"They are a fairly large college city of about 140,000 people, very well off compared to the average," Mitchell explains. "And so they are building a brand-new network that's going to connect every last person with fibre optics and they will compete not only with a cable company that goes to every home, but a telephone company [as well].
"So it's going to be one of the more aggressive municipal networks where they're building in an area where people already have some access — it's just not the best access."
I think of [broadband networks] as being the roads of the 21st century.- Christopher Mitchell, Institute for Local Self-Reliance
The incumbent internet service providers in Fort Collins spent $900,000 in lobbying against the local ballot measure — nearly double the previous record for spending in an area referendum.
"In the community, it was really organized by a few people that did not have a big history of organizing, and they spent about $15,000 against the $900,000 of professional P.R. people that were trying to scare the city," Mitchell points out.
But can community broadband networks also work in larger cities with much bigger populations?
"I think they're more likely to embrace more incremental strategies — strategies where a city might build pieces of a network and then lease it to a provider rather than offering services itself," Mitchell says.
"In a city like Toronto, you might start by building fibre along arterials, the big roads that get into neighbourhoods, and then seeing if the private sector would start building off of it," he adds. "And if they didn't, you might build deeper into the neighbourhoods.
"Or what you might see is a city building out into a specific low-income neighbourhood and saying, 'These neighbourhoods are the ones who are going to get it last by the private sector, so we're going to spur an interest in this by putting in the network and leasing it at a low cost so that these people have service also."
Telecoms still in control
The FCC decision means that big telecoms will still control much of the online access in North America. Community networks can still make a difference, however, Mitchell says.
People speaking out and organizing can change things in ways they don't always expect.- Christopher Mitchell
"The internet is very large — it's global," he notes. "It's impossible to say how the ruling repealing net neutrality will shape it and I think the power of these big companies to misshape [it] in their own advantage is tremendous. But I think for a lot of things, the communities that have their own access are going to do pretty well.
"I have a hope that that even if these companies were able to shape the internet in some ways, that there will be a rising movement that changes Congress [and] the presidency. People speaking out and organizing can change things in ways they don't always expect."
To listen to the full interview with Christopher Mitchell, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.