Internet for All: The Push for a Public Utility

Support for municipal broadband in cities like New York could spark a movement for equitable internet access throughout the US.

Abbey Lossing

Early internet boosters imagined an immaterial plane of virtually unfettered freedoms, with room for everyone to realize their dreams outside of the physical world’s oppressive hierarchies. This naïve vision didn’t acknowledge that cyberspace is inseparable from its servers, data centers, and spools of cable — the network as it actually exists.

With glaring, widespread inequalities in reliable internet access around the world, “closing the digital divide” has become one of the great platitudes of the 21st century. A recent analysis of Microsoft data estimates that roughly 157 million people in the US use the internet at speeds that don’t meet the modest federal benchmark of 25 Mbps, and Federal Communications Commission data indicates that broadband-speed internet isn’t even an option for about 15 million Americans. Low broadband usage generally tracks with elevated rates of unemployment, and ease of access broadly splits along racial and class lines.

These problems largely result from the fact that privately owned internet infrastructure — interlocking layers of hardware and software owned by an ever-consolidating pantheon of corporations — is almost exclusively deployed on the basis of profit. As centers of social, civic, and economic life are uploaded to the cloud, this causes the internet as we know it to uphold many of the same structures of inequality it once promised to subvert.

It’s hard to imagine alternative internet ownership structures, in part because it’s hard to imagine the internet at all. Corporate control amplifies the network’s complexity by hiding its operation behind a proprietary shroud, concealing information from competitors and the public alike. Rather than encouraging efficient governance and actively responding to the needs of users, private competition ends up protecting a handful of bloated network oligarchs.

A more transparent network structure could conceivably coordinate a democratic system for governing its own maintenance, deployment, and expansion. But dot-com giants like Google and Amazon, along with Tier 1 providers like AT&T and Verizon, are deeply entrenched, and the internet’s sheer scale can make the prospect of organizing to confront them seem daunting.

Luckily, the internet’s fragmented physical layers make an incremental approach seem feasible. Last-mile infrastructure — wired and wireless systems that connect homes, businesses, and consumers to local internet exchanges — presents an especially promising arena for grassroots public intervention. Last-mile service providers are generally unpopular, and are widely known to gouge customers, establish monopolies, and prioritize service in wealthy areas. Some 83 million Americans have only one option of broadband provider. Meanwhile, local governments tend to exercise a significant amount of discretion over how and where fiber-optic cable is deployed, mediating the ability of internet service providers (ISPs) to access the utility buckets, telephone poles, and underground trenches required to lay cable. By treating the internet like other utilities, municipal governments could translate this underutilized leverage into opportunities to ensure that the public is served on the basis of need rather than means.

As of January 2020, the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Networks project identified nearly 600 municipal networks across the US, including 63 with citywide fiber and more than 230 that offer at least 1 gigabit-speed service. Perhaps the most notable among these is Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the local public power utility built a high-speed fiber network directly onto the electrical grid, delivering cost-effective service to every business and residence. Community-owned networks have been on the rise for some time, and there are increasing indications that the idea may be on the verge of a mass moment. President Biden, in his push to reduce prices and bring broadband to every home in the US, has suggested prioritizing funding for non-traditional networks from local governments, nonprofits, and cooperatives.

But while the US has seen a handful of successful experiments in municipal broadband, others have failed spectacularly. Without sufficient grassroots pressure to counterbalance industry lobbying muscle, municipal projects in places like Philadelphia and Provo, Utah have been hamstrung to the point of collapse. According to BroadbandNow, the telecom lobby has pushed prohibitive community broadband restrictions through 18 state legislatures, with lesser roadblocks in another five states. Chattanooga’s oft-touted Electric Power Board has even been the target of aggressive industry pressure, leading to regulations that prevent its successful public network from expanding beyond a restricted service area.

It’s like, what are we missing here? How are they able to keep doing this? That’s how we started thinking about pushing for this on a municipal level.

Emerging from a year of quarantine that highlighted the fundamental necessity of a stable broadband connection, a group of activists is working to make New York City, with one of the most developed broadband markets in the country, into a high-profile success story that could spark a growing movement for municipal broadband access throughout the US.

The Internet for All coalition launched its campaign on May 7 with a rally at Barclays Center plaza in Brooklyn. Led by members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3, the MORE Caucus of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), and the progressive advocacy group VOCAL-NY, the group is pushing public officials to deploy a publicly owned municipal broadband system while calling attention to failures of private broadband service that apply as much to the Big Apple as to the rest of the country.

“This past year has been really bad,” said Will Luckman, an organizer with the local DSA chapter’s Tech Action working group. “But even if we weren’t in a pandemic — trying to work remotely, learn remotely, access government services remotely — far too many New Yorkers still do not have access. When the pandemic is over and we return to some form of normal, we can’t go back to normal with the way that we’ve been building out the internet.”

“Normal” service provision in New York City leaves 730,000 households without broadband at home, showing that inadequate access is not just a rural issue. It’s true that remote areas are harder to connect, and that people in cities tend to enjoy faster connections at lower prices, but it’s also true that cable companies do whatever they can to exploit urban markets despite the relatively cheap cost of deploying infrastructure.

One man at the Internet for All rally claimed to pay more than $200 every monthly for spotty service from Charter Spectrum, which had designated his Queens neighborhood as a “rural area” to charge residents exorbitant rates. “I’m gonna tell you, it’s an urban area,” he said. “My bill shouldn’t be 200-and-some dollars just because they claim I live on the borderline of Long Island. Long Island shouldn’t be paying $230 for cable.”

Because private ISPs operate on the basis of maximizing profit, they are slow to expand or upgrade networks in poor areas that return fewer premium subscriptions. This depresses competition, opening windows for local monopolies to charge excessive rates. As a result, households with the greatest need are frequently stuck paying the highest rates for the slowest connections. This phenomenon, known as “digital redlining,” disproportionally affects communities of color.

These problems became especially acute as the pandemic forced schools to embrace remote learning, driving a wedge between children in terms of their ability to access their right to a free public education. “What this pandemic showed everybody is something that many of us have known for many years,” said Tom Shepherd, a member of the city’s board of education. “If you do not have access to WiFi, you are cut off from your school. Almost 10 percent of students in the New York City public school system still do not have access to the internet.”

While digital redlining creates residential hierarchies, those without permanent addresses are left even further behind. Anthea Matthews, an unhoused person currently living in a shelter, explained how internet access can pose yet another barrier for homeless New Yorkers who are trying to reestablish their independence. “We need access because we have to find apartments,” she said. “We have to find jobs, and we need to be able to receive information in a timely fashion.”

With roughly a dozen companies offering decent fixed broadband connections in New York City, you might expect market pressure to spur providers into offering better service at reasonable prices. But in practice, cable companies tend to operate as checkered patchworks of pocket kingdoms, preferring to compete over territories rather than within them. The arrangement creates cracks that a municipal system could conceivably plug.

“It’s a failure of the big private cable companies that provide access,” said NYC-DSA organizer Will Luckman. “It’s a failure of government thinking. It’s a failure of imagination.”

Thanks to the industry’s outsized influence, political solutions are widely restrained to incentives, public-private partnerships, and complicated subsidy programs. New York may prove to be fertile ground for this initiative, however, as the state is littered with reasons to be skeptical of such half-measures. CityBridge’s contract to replace decaying payphones with high-speed data kiosks; Verizon’s commitment to ensure FiOS connectivity to every residence in exchange for a citywide franchise; Spectrum’s obligation to invest in upstate deployment as a condition of Charter’s Time Warner Cable acquisition. These recent agreements all ended with protracted lawsuits targeting flagrant private sector non-compliance. With the state legislature considering a bill that would make broadband a utility, the time for a serious public intervention may finally be here.

Another factor that makes New York City a strong candidate for municipal broadband is the presence of a readymade workforce. As 1,700 Spectrum workers with IBEW Local 3 enter the fourth year of the longest strike in US history, many of them would likely jump at the opportunity to provide the city with the manpower needed to operate a public network — as long as they can keep their union. IBEW is among the largest unions in the US, and Local 3’s support could help clear a major hurdle to American municipal broadband.

“If you take a step back and think about the Spectrum experience from the union’s perspective, it was much broader than Spectrum and the way they were treating workers,” said Jason Ortiz, a communications consultant for IBEW Local 3. “Every single customer you talk to will have something horrible to say. So you’ve got this company that has monopolies in certain areas, and they’re shitty to their workers, they’re shitty to the state, they’re shitty to the taxpayers, and they’re shitty to their customers. And it’s like, what are we missing here? How are they able to keep doing this? That’s how we started thinking about pushing for this on a municipal level. It touches all of us.”

New York City could take several paths toward delivering publicly owned municipal broadband. One option would leverage the city’s already extensive mileage of publicly owned fiber-optic cables — many of which were by the same Spectrum workers who could now return to maintain them. The city could also escalate its response to ISP non-compliance with local franchise agreements, using contract violations as a pretext to seize fiber from delinquent operators. Another route could have the city build out a municipal mesh network, capitalizing on high population density to deploy wireless infrastructure capable of operating at a lower overhead than major providers. While its coverage is far from universal, the local NYC Mesh cooperative (my sole home internet provider for several years) presents a perfect example of this idea in action at scale, and a group of Spectrum strikers have already started building an ISP cooperative in a similar mold.

“There are places… smaller than New York City that have created their own municipal broadband systems,” observed Derek Jordan, an IBEW Local 3 representative. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t have that here.”

A system that promotes the internet as a democratizing force while allowing an exploitative cohort of rent-seeking companies to play gatekeeper presents a troubling contradiction. With recent crises emphasizing the failures of privatized internet infrastructure, the Internet for All campaign is building grassroots support for a cogent proposal whose impact could ultimately reach beyond the limits of one city, toward a truly public internet.

Artwork By

Abbey Lossing

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