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Citizens Class: Community Connections

Is wireless internet access a civic right?

(Transcripts of video clips are at the end of the document.)

Backgrounder: Community Connections
In Lafayette, Louisiana, residents and officials took on their phone company, BellSouth, and their cable company, Cox Communications, and built their own high-speed fiber network after the firms refused to bring true broadband connections to their community. Both telcom giants lobbied the state legislature to block Lafayette's plan, citing unfair competition. Ultimately, lawmakers put it to a vote to let residents decide. The measure allowing the community-built network passed overwhelmingly. BellSouth then filed suit, delaying construction by more than a year, before losing their case in court. There are hundreds of Community Internet and municipal broadband projects underway or in the planning stages in the U.S. But there are also 14 states that either prohibit cities and towns from building their own networks or have passed laws that make it more difficult ... [more]

Class Is in Session...
The United States — as discussed in the New Digital Divide Citizens Class — has fallen far behind much of the world in broadband penetration, and our broadband connections are significantly slower than those in many other countries.

But that's not the worst of it. Some rural communities, like Lafayette, Louisiana, that couldn't get high-speed Internet from their cable or telephone company simply decided to build networks themselves. And then the backlash began, with large commercial providers lobbying state legislatures and filing suit in court to stop local communities from doing what these telcom giants allegedly wouldn't do themselves. And now, there are several bills in Congress addressing the issue —one would protect the right of local communities to set up such networks — others which would make them nearly impossible.

Here, we'll explore community Internet and municipal networks extending broadband service to rural communities and meeting the goals of universal service. We'll also learn about legislation affecting municipal networks and how you can track what is happening in your community on this front.

Watch the video

New community internet networks-like the one in Lafayette-crop up across the country every day. This new technology is making it possible for cities and towns to improve access to information, provide education and job training, enhance public safety, foster technological innovation, and bolster local economic development.

Communities are connecting their residents to the Internet through fiber, wireless technology and "mesh networks," which transmit broadband signals through antennas throughout the city. Rural areas, often deemed unprofitable by broadband providers, are now joining the Internet revolution, taking advantage of wireless services by doing it themselves. Some of the benefits of community Internet are universal affordability, public access, community development, and competitive advantages.

Jim Baller, an expert on public broadband and the attorney who represented Lafayette, has made the case that public electric utilities are ideally positioned to play an important role in building the national information infrastructure. They follow the ethic of universal service and their participation could increase competition in the delivery of telecommunications and information services. Further, they have historically filled the gaps left by private enterprise and served as yardsticks for measuring the reasonableness of prices and quality of services. In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt charged, "Where a community, or a city, or a county, or a district is not satisfied with the service rendered or the rates charged by the private utility, it has the undeniable right as one of its functions of government … to set up … its own governmentally owned and operated service."

Bumps in the Information Superhighway
The problem with these community Internet networks is that they frequently encounter significant roadblocks. Big telcom companies have lobbied to prevent municipalities from offering broadband service. More than a dozen states now have laws on the books restricting municipal broadband. Five states approved anti-municipal broadband measures in 2005 alone or added on to their current restrictions. But in nine other states, attempts to restrict community Internet projects were either defeated or delayed indefinitely.

Congress is currently considering reforms to the telcom laws, and community Internet is on the agenda. The Lautenberg-McCain Bill (S. 1294), for example, would "preserve and protect the ability of local governments to provide broadband capability and services," ensuring that local communities everywhere can decide for themselves how to best serve the technology needs of their own citizens. Community networks



But two other bills, one in the Senate and one in the House, would be detrimental to community Internet projects. In the Senate, Nevada Republican John Ensign introduced The Broadband Investment and Consumer Choice Act, S. 1504, a bill which would require local governments wishing to offer broadband services to ask the private provider for permission. Existing municipal projects would be grandfathered in, but would not be able to expand services. In the House, Texas Republican Pete Sessions introduced H.R. 2726, "Preserving Innovation in Telecom Act of 2005," a bill which would prevent any city in the country from providing their citizens with Internet access if a private company offers service nearby. The bill would prohibit municipal wireless projects in any locale where a private provider serves 10 percent of the population or above.

Discussion

  • The nonprofit Free Press promotes community Internet as a public service and tracks relevant state and federal legislation. Check out your state on their site. Does your state impose legal barriers to community Internet projects? Do you live in one of the states that successfully held off a bill?

  • As we saw in the story about Lafayette, sometimes community Internet or municipal broadband projects may be the only option for some communities. What is the status of broadband in your community? Have you been satisfied with the services that you receive? Do you feel that you have adequate options?

  • Do you think that Internet connectivity should be provided in the same way services are provided by public utilities? Is access a right?


BEGIN VIDEO FROM NET @ RISK:

JOEY DUREL: We have an out-migration problem with our young people from Louisiana. And I felt it was time for politicians to quit talking and do something.

RICK KARR: Something like building every home and business in town its own fiber-optic connection to the information superhighway.

DON BERTRAND: We see-- telecommunications in the way of Internet, in the way of fiber connectivity as something that should be available to everyone.

STEPHEN HANDWERK: Just like water, sewer, electricity, telephone. I mean it all falls into that same lump.

JOEY DUREL: I think this is a tremendous-- opportunity for small business and to attract business here.

RICK KARR: Lafayette's phone company, BellSouth, and its cable company, Cox Communications, told residents that they'd have to wait a decade or longer for better internet connections - like the ones they take for granted in Tokyo.

STEPHEN HANDWERK: Up until recently, the majority of the parish only had one-way communication on their cable, so they could download information. However, but to be able to send any information, they had to be able to connect through a phone modem.

JOEY DUREL: …if we didn't do it this community would not get it for 20 or 30 years, who knows?

RICK KARR: Joey Durel is the City/Parish President of Lafayette. He calls himself a progressive Republican ... Who sees no reason why local government shouldn't provide services that the private sector won't.

JOEY DUREL: You know, there are things that are gonna be available three, or four, or five years from now, that nobody has even thought about yet, and-- and that's gonna happen. And Lafayette will be-- uniquely positioned to take advantage of that, unlike most of the country.

RICK KARR: So what the city decided to do was build its own fiber network ... Through its municipal power and water company, Lafayette Utility Systems ... Or LUS.

Terry Huval is the utility's director.

RICK KARR: A lot of people think of the Internet as being sort of the triumph of-- the marketplace - the triumph of entrepreneurship. Why would a public utility need to get involved with the Internet?

TERRY HUVAL: The community wanted to have competitive options for telephone and-- mainly cable television service. Cable television service drove us even to look at this. Because people were so dissatisfied with the cable TV company continuingly going up on their rates.

RICK KARR: When the city-owned utility started to build its own small fiber network ... Looping around town to link up its generators, substations, and offices ... Huval had an "a-ha!" Moment:

TERRY HUVAL: That's what created the vision of saying, "We can do something special for our community, for the people that own this utility system."

END VIDEO

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