Last year we witnessed the elimination of critical privacy and network neutrality protections in the broadband market. But these moves would be less dangerous if we were able to vote with our wallets, and choose a provider that respected our privacy and didn’t engage in unfair data discrimination. Unfortunately, most of us have only one choice for high-speed Internet; if Comcast behaves badly we can complain but we can’t hit them where it really hurts by switching to someone else.
The good news: communities across the country are trying to fix that by developing their own community broadband networks. And some members of Congress trying to help. Led by Congresswoman Eshoo, Congress recently introduced HR 4814, the Community Broadband Act of 2018, to empower local citizens to explore community broadband as a means to induce competition and lower prices. In particular, the bill tackles barriers raised by laws in more than 20 states that prevent local communities from building their own networks.
If the bill passes, it could clear the way for an explosion of new experimentation. While not all community broadband effort have flourished several markets that have embraced community broadband options have succeeded in offering faster and cheaper broadband access. For example, Chattanooga, Tennessee long ago deployed a community broadband network from their local utility after the found they were being left behind in the digital age. Today, the people of that city pay $70 a month for symmetrical gigabit service, which is comparable to many Google Fiber markets. And while it may not make sense in every community, denying people the opportunity to explore the option in its entirety effectively green lights the local monopoly to engage in anti-consumer conduct.
In EFF’s own backyard of San Francisco, the local government is actively exploring building out its own fiber optic platform for all comers to sell broadband access to its citizens, and has proactively committed to supporting network neutrality and user privacy. The city’s feasibility and economic analysis estimates it can make high speed broadband available to all of its residents and affordable for all income levels. If successful, it could be a model for many other major cities.
Community broadband might not be a household term yet, but then neither was “net neutrality” just a few years ago. We’re thrilled to see lawmakers, city officials and ordinary citizens taking up the cause. Community broadband isn’t a complete solution to the FCC decision to abandon its role in protecting net neutrality, or Congress’ outrageous decision to gut consumer privacy, but it’s a good start.