News & Politics

Corporate vs. Community Internet

The gap is growing between those who have access to information technology, and those who don't. Now the battle to close the digital divide has spilled onto another front -- the fight for free municipal broadband services.
Though outgoing FCC Chairman Michael Powell may find it funny to joke about a "Mercedes divide," the ever increasing gap "between those who have access to information technology and digital content and those who do not" is no laughing matter.

Now the battle to close the digital divide has spilled onto another front -- the fight for free municipal broadband services. After last year's Supreme Court ruling that states can bar "cities from offering high-speed Internet services," lobbyists from the telecommunications industry swarmed on state capitals with one singular purpose: "to take cities out of the broadband business by state dictum."

Telecom enjoyed some initial success until anti-municipal Internet bills failed in three straight states -- Iowa, Florida and Texas. The ever-determined industry then set upon "an outrageous attempt...to protect their duopoly over broadband from competition" with the help of one of their own.

Doing their shilling on the steps of Congress is Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), a former employee of Southwestern Bell, who recently introduced legislation that "would extend the ban on municipal broadband services to every city in the country." (You can send a letter to your representatives asking them to oppose the Sessions bill.)

The Socioeconomic Divide on Broadband

Similar to the gap seen in basic Internet access, there is a vast divide between socioeconomic classes when it comes to high-speed Internet access.

A recent report found that "virtually every rural state remains underserved and uncompetitive," while "in urban areas, many families are priced out of the market." Telecom giants "have failed to bridge the digital divide and opted to serve the most lucrative markets at the expense of universal, affordable access."

One expert compared such high-speed Internet access inequity to "having the moderate and upper classes in IMAX theatres, while the underprivileged are still watching silent movies."

The Case for Community Internet

Over the course of our nation's history, municipalities have played a key role in "building and maintaining critical infrastructure." Therefore, a chief claim made by opponents of municipal broadband -- that local governments are incapable of running complex broadband systems -- is a statement that "defies history and the experiences of daily life."

Also, municipalities care about more than profits and do not "enjoy a wealth of state and federal subsidies" and other perks thrown at telecom giants. Local governments, which are "accountable to local citizens [and] understand their own needs," can "provide needed broadband services designed to address community needs" rather than just the bottom line. Municipal networks will "provide the competition necessary to keep rates low and quality of service high" as well as "increase investment in local communities." Other developed nations that have surpassed America in providing broadband access not only permit but oftentimes encourage "local governments to build out broadband networks."

Innovators No More

Though President Bush would like to celebrate the increased accessibility of the Internet, over the first three years of the Bush administration, the nation "dropped from 4th to 13th place in global rankings of broadband Internet usage and the latest mobile-phone technology."

Once considered a leader of innovation, the United States is being outdone by many other industrialized nations that are "positioning themselves to be the first states to reap the benefits of the broadband era: economic growth, increased productivity, and a better quality of life." In fact, broadband service is seen as essential to economic development.

As broadband "becomes a necessary utility for commerce, education and healthcare," high-speed Internet services will be as critical to a nation's infrastructure as water pipelines and electricity grids or schools and hospitals.

The Case Against Corporate-Only Broadband

Desperate to maintain their monopoly, telecom giants have "done their best to demonize" municipal broadband projects, launching "an aggressive lobbying and misinformation campaign."

Earlier this year, Verizon, which successfully blocked Pennsylvania residents from obtaining low-cost Internet access without its permission, circulated to lawmakers, journalists and opinion leaders a so-called fact sheet that was chock full of erroneous statistics on the "failures of public broadband."

In actuality, "municipal broadband has been a success for those communities that have begun offering service ... [and] the propaganda maligning municipal systems is nothing more than industry-sponsored folklore." All their shadowy lobbying work obscures the fact that "the commercial broadband market has not only failed to bring affordable access in 2005, it is nowhere close."
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