Times are good for private ISPs. They have Ajit Pai, former legal counsel for Verizon running the FCC. They have seen the repeal of net neutrality at the FCC. They have effective monopoly control all over the country, save for a few spots. They have immense political power in Congress and many statehouses. And now it appears that they are getting another judge in the Supreme Court, a judge who could finally put the last nail on the coffin of net neutrality, Brent Kavanaugh.
I see all these gifts floating towards the incumbent ISPs, yet it seems to me that no matter how much power or money they get, it’s never, ever going to be enough. I also see that the more power they get, the more callous they become to their customers, and the more hated they become. For ISPs have made money the final arbiter in public policy choices when it comes to broadband.
I can’t help but think of the phrase, “stake based voting”, because that is exactly what I’m seeing. The constituency with the most money wins. The constituency that pays for votes gets the votes to swing their way, regardless of the merits of the public policy outcomes.
But as the tide swings more and more in favor of the big incumbents, I see an opposing force building. I am a member of that opposing force. I live in Utah and for almost ten long years, I was a paying member of a captured market for Centurylink and Comcast. For years, I had no alternative but to subscribe to either of them if I wanted a wired connection. And for almost a decade I wrote articles, made phone calls and attended city council meetings in the hopes that I could finally subscribe to an alternative.
Long before I made a move to Utah, I did some research on my internet options. I had Comcast in California and that was Ok, but what about Utah? One result of my research was that I learned of something called, “UTOPIA”, also known as the Utah Open Infrastructure Agency. I learned that many communities in Utah had been pleading with the incumbents for more than a decade for better service, with greater capacity. 13 cities created UTOPIA in response to a broken market maintained by the incumbents. UTOPIA is community broadband for Utah.
When I moved to Utah, my wife and I landed in a basement of a relative of my wife’s. They had Comcast. Shortly thereafter, we moved into an apartment, and they had Comcast. Then we bought a house, no Comcast? Only Qwest (now CenturyLink) offering 5 Mbs. I found out that my house was one and a half blocks away from the last rollout of UTOPIA. After a year and half of effort and luck, mostly luck, I got connected to Comcast again, this time, with 50 Mbs. I was still checking with UTOPIA, and every time I talked with them, I heard that they had no plans to build more in the immediate future in my area.
We had a baby. Another was on the way. We needed more room. To add urgency to our move, the neighbor across the street raised the Confederate Flag over his front door. Then one night, he had an altercation in his house, was arrested on drug charges, and the Confederate Flag was replaced with a skull and crossbones.
With some effort and time, we bought another house and did a nice quick exchange. Somehow, everything closed in about 30 days. But with our new house, we had Centurylink again, and this time, we got 20 Mbs. No sign of Comcast. No sign of UTOPIA.
Then UTOPIA won a $10 million settlement in federal court. They promptly used that money to connect more customers. I live in a relatively new subdivision out in nowhere on the west side. 4 years after moving here, I get UTOPIA. 250 Mbs down and *up*, for about $52 a month. Neither Comcast nor Centurylink can touch that. They don’t have the infrastructure to do it. And I am pretty sure their shareholders would not approve if they tried.
The incumbent ISPs, the names we love to hate, like Comcast, Verizon, Time-Warner, AT and T (the ampersand always gets messed up in my blogs), Frontier Communications, and a few others that I can’t name right now, are sitting pretty. I like to call them “The Cabal”, because that is what they are. As they milk this Trump Administration for all it is worth, I have a cautious optimism.
As an observer of national discourse on net neutrality and broadband in general, I find it striking that there is little to zero discussion of community broadband in the context of national debate. I’ve only see that topic mentioned once in national news and Ajit Pai was the one talking about it, and then it was only brief. Very brief.
Here is where my cautious optimism comes in. As I see the Trump Administration caving, I mean, catering, to the incumbent ISPs, It’s almost as if the Trump Administration is selling rope to them, and they know what it’s for. Surely, somebody in DC is aware of the fact that more than 550 jurisdictions and counting, have built their own networks and are providing service to the communities they serve. Community broadband outperforms the incumbent ISPs on nearly every metric. From price, to speed to customer service, I can see it here. It just works. Even their invoices are simple.
I believe that this is the fire under the feet of the incumbent ISPs. There is no other fire that we can use. They own the statehouse and Congress. Their shareholders don’t really care about customers, or they would actually seek out accountability. Who does that? Community broadband.
The people who work at UTOPIA live where I live. They are accountable to the people they serve because they see us, their customers when they go shopping, to church, or to the local little league baseball game. Comcast? Their big honcho in the corner office of a tower in Philadelphia could care less about us. He will never see us.
It is clear to me that with recent trends and news with the Trump Administration, the incumbent ISPs are running as fast as they can from customer accountability. And the farther they run, the greater the opportunity for community broadband.