Municipal Broadband Is Municipal Resistance

The Trump administration declared its telecommunications policy early, naming Ajit Pai the new Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. Pai has been a Republican member of the FCC and an implacable opponent of the initiatives of former FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler. And, in a matter of a few days, Pai has released a dozen actions, all designed to rollback initiatives of the Obama administration.

  1. Digital inclusion. In 1985, during the Reagan administration, the FCC established its “lifeline” program, low cost telephone service for the economically disadvantaged. This program has been modernized over the years and the Obama administration administration moved to include broadband. With no notice other than a note on the FCC web site, Pai revoked the eligibility of 9 companies to participate in the lifeline program.
  2. Net neutrality. Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers and governments must treat all network traffic equally. Telecommunications companies oppose this because they see revenue opportunities in selling “fast lanes” and a chance to favor their own services. Pai agrees, and believes, without foundation, net neutrality to be one of the many needless pieces of regulation that is impeding innovation. Telecom industry analysts and public advocate see Pai’s swift actions as a prelude to the dismantling of net neutrality.
  3. Corporate consolidation. The Obama administration failed an early test, allowing the merger of Comcast and NBC/Universal, but did negotiate concessions regarding digital inclusion and net neutrality. Early indications were that more substantive objections were going to be raised to a pending merger of AT&T and TimeWarner. While candidate Trump denounced this merger as a symptom of a broken, rigged system, President Trump has now said that he has not “seen any of the facts” regarding the merger. The prospect of a Republican administration opposing mergers seems dim, at best.
  4. Privacy. In October, the FCC established broad privacy protections for consumer data collected by ISPs. New FCC Commisioner Pai is on record opposing those protections.

These Obama policy initiatives were not the work of radical media activists. They were, instead, the considered proposals of a self-described rabid capitalist, Tom Wheeler. Wheeler, who had spent his career in and representing the telecommunications industry, came to believe that industry was suffering from a market failure. He felt that, to restore balance and competition, the government needed, as last resort, to exercise its regulatory powers.

Make no mistake. In the world of telecommunications policy, the Republican agenda is as extreme as their immigration, women’s health, and environment policies. Using the cover of “modernization”, Republicans intend to remove the FCC’s power to regulate entirely, warned former Commissioner Wheeler in a conversation with Susan Crawford at Harvard recently. Wheeler went on to caution that we are moving to a nation where our critical communications infrastructure — the lifeblood of our civics-is controlled by four corporations.

Resistance is Local

While telecommunication policy is thought of as national, in reality, it’s a matter of whose cables and services reach which home. That decision can be a very local one. A free, fair, open, and affordable internet for Cambridge is within grasp. All Cambridge needs to do is build one.

By building its own network, Cambridge can ensure that its infrastructure reflects its values and the needs of its residents, not the values and needs of Comcast and Verizon.

A municipal broadband network can — and should- be neutral, treating all data traffic equally. By building our own network, Cambridge can control the economics. Cambridge could leverage its wealth as a means to provide broadband regardless of the ability to pay. By being a network provider, Cambridge would contribute to a diversity of providers and bulwark against corporate concentration. Lastly, Cambridge doesn’t need the revenue that would come from selling personal data and can provide the strongest possible privacy protections.

We should remember, and take seriously, what candidate Trump said about freedom of speech and the Internet:

We have to talk to them about, maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some way. Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.

Just as Cambridge has pledged to remain a sanctuary city to protect its residents and its values, Cambridge can take steps to protect free speech and a free and open Internet. It can build its own broadband network. This is what resistance looks like.

This article has been revised to reflect Commissioner Pai’s early actions.

The author is a member of, but not speaking for, the Cambridge Broadband Task Force.