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Municipal Broadband Takes On The Internet Cartel

Erin Thompson May 25, 2007

municipalbroadbandBy Erin Thompson

On a street corner in Harlem, Kamal King and Jonathan Evans are taking pictures of light poles. They record the coordinates of each light pole and will eventually send the data to city, which will hopefully allow them to install wireless radios on light poles around Harlem.

When installed, these radios will begin the test phases of a Harlem-wide wireless infrastructure, which the Wireless Harlem Initiative aims to use to provide free or lowcost broadband residents to all nearby Harlem residents.

Members of NYC Wireless, a non-profit that creates wireless hotspots around the city in public parks, local businesses and low-income housing, first introduced King and Evans to the possibilities of the low-cost broadband networks at Monroe College.

“It was kind of exciting,” said Evans “NYC wireless came to our school, and this school is in the Bronx … And these white people came to our school and were like ‘hey this is wonderful.’”

For their final project in the class, King and Evans hooked up a local coffee shop with a free Wi-Fi hotspot. “We got an A,” said King, who discovered the not-for-profit Wireless Harlem on the Internet one night and has been involved ever since.

On a small scale, the efforts of community groups like Wireless Harlem and NYC Wireless reflect the hundreds of initiatives undertaken by communities and municipalities around the country to address the growing “digital divide.”

According to a March 2006 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, only 21 percent of households with an annual income of $30,000 or less had any broadband connection at home in 2006, while 68 percent of households that earn over $75,000 had a home broadband connection.

This is especially the case in Harlem, where Wireless Harlem has spent the last year doing research and advocacy to push their project forward.

“What our research told us is that there are too many people on one computer and that computer may be dial-up — and so there’s a bottleneck in the household, with four or five people trying to get on one computer,” said Michael Lewis, founder of Wireless Harlem.
At the first of five hearings organized by the city to address the issue of Internet access, held on March 30 in the Bronx, community wireless campaigners, technology experts, policy advocates and students and teachers from the city’s underserved schools testified on the conditions of broadband access in New York.

Andrew Gallagher, a public school teacher at the Bronx Writing Academy, said that only 20 percent of his students report having a computer and access to the Internet at home.

Students from New York’s Brandeis High School reported that as few as nine laptops might serve 50 students, many of whom do not have Internet access at home. “Many of us even fail because we don’t have computers,” one student testified.

For long-time advocates of broadband access, the hearings are a first step in joining the rest of the country.

“There needs to be a wider public understanding of this issue, and that needs to be demonstrated by people showing up to these public hearings,” said Laura Forlano, a board member of NYC Wireless.

Why has installing an increasingly vital communications resource — one which costs relatively little to install and maintain — become such a struggle in New York City and around the country?

“The short answer is, unless someone is willing to go out and rewrite the past [Federal Communications Commission] FCC regulations and unless they open up the [telecommunications] networks to competition, there’s not a rat’s chance in hell that anything exciting is going to happen in New York,” said Bruce Kushnick, a consumer rights’ advocate and founder of Teletruth.org.

While the FCC plays an important part by setting policy, other interests play an even more profound role.

WHO REALLY OWNS THE INTERNET?
The word “Internet” brings to mind an ever-expanding, amorphous ether of infor-mation — a network that cannot be controlled and which expands and changes as more and more people use it. Yet the Internet depends on the physical infrastructure that must support the packets of data traveling between computer networks and servers. That infrastructure includes a web of cable, telephone and fiber lines crisscrossing the United States, allowing the data to zip around the country and world.

While no one owns the Internet, a handful of powerful telephone and cable companies control the fiber, cable and copper wires that support the Internet. Competition in the telecommunications market has been obliterated by years of deregulation, mergers and the elimination of “common carrier obligations” (see timeline). This means attempts to bridge the digital divide and prevent further disparities face a gauntlet of resistance from one of the most powerful industries in the country.

“The main impediment to everything is the telecommunications industry — this is not even like business versus the small guy, this is a few very specific corporations versus this is a few very specific corporations versus all other business interests and human interests in the country,” said Josh Breitbart, a New York-based media activist who has blogged extensively on municipal wireless initiatives.

Originally public in mission and government run (ARPANET, the forerunner of the Internet, was in part an invention of the Pentagon), a series of regulatory changes led to the gradual privatization of Internet infrastructure — with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 marking a milestone in the deregulation of the entire communications industry. (See page 8 sidebar).

A 2005 ruling from the Supreme Court in FCC v. Brand X Internet Services freed the telecoms from government regulations requiring them to lease their lines at discounted rates to other Internet service providers, a concept known as common carriage requirements. This effectively gutted competition between the largest conglomerates that own most of the Internet infrastructure. Media giants like Verizon and AT&T and Time Warner, which now own most of the infrastructure, want to tack on hefty premiums for services like voice and video on top of the fees they already charge consumers for DSL, fiber and cable networks, threatening the fundamentally open nature of the Internet.

“The biggest danger for the Internet right now is that we are going to trade a binary divide of online/offline for a more subtle disparity between speed and usefulness,” said Breitbart.

By doing so, the telecoms are threatening the most radical and democratic features of the Internet.

“The Internet makes radically cheaper the provision of these once quite complicated services,” said Lucas Graves, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University studying the history of the Internet. “If the Internet were treated as a utility, as sort of the federal highway system, and you just had a basic public trust or public investment that took care of providing the pipes, then the computers that we all use can pretty much do everything else.”

Instead, telecommunications companies are set on creating a tiered toll-road for consumers, all the while squashing initiatives aimed at leveling access.

AN “OUT OF CONTROL” SPIRAL OF DIVESTMENT”
While many countries around the world are investing in upgrades to fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks, 98 percent of Americans access the Internet via DSL and cable modem services, which, although faster than dial-up, are significantly slower than fiber optic networks. In areas deemed “economically unfeasible” for telecommunications investment, there may no available alternative to dial-up. According to a January 2007 report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 10 percent of U.S. households do not have access to broadband from any provider. Meanwhile, broadband subscribers in the United States pay twice as much as customers in Asia and Europe and get a fraction of the speed. First in broadband penetration rates just 10 years ago, the United States is now ranked fifteenth in the world by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“This is a spiral, an out-of-control spiral of us losing our competitive edge, internationally,” said Sascha Meinrath, a community wireless pioneer and Internet activist.

This downward spiral is due in part to a refusal by the telecommunications industry to build out promised fiber networks. Telephone companies received $200 billion in state tax breaks and price deregulation over the past decade on the promise that they would deploy 86 million new lines of fiber infrastructure by 2006, according to Bruce Kushnick, author of The $200 Billion Broadband Scandal.

“The phone companies lied and took the money and didn’t build the networks,” Kushnick said. “And now what they’re offering is basically inferior to what’s currently being rolled out and deployed in Japan and other countries.”

Currently, fewer than 500,000 fiber optic lines have been built. The areas where phone companies are rolling out new fiber infrastructure are almost exclusively affluent. In New York, for example, of the nearly 100 communities targeted for fiber optic deployments, 96 percent had incomes above the state median.

“In short they’ve hijacked the utilities to make it a private company with their own exclusive rights,” Kushnick said.

BEYOND THE DIGITAL DIVIDE: UTOPIA AND THE MESH NETWORKS
At the same time that the telecommunications industry is trying to exert more and more control over the digital sphere, other forces are attempting to push the digital world in the other direction.

“There are two forces that are interacting that can disrupt the current situation, one of them is technological innovation, specifically wireless, the other one is government involvement, specifically municipal,” said Breitbart.

Wireless technology, which uses the same low-powered, unlicensed spectrum that garage door openers use, has been a transformative force for broadband proliferation because it allows more than one user to share an Internet connection, while being relatively cost-effective to deploy. The traditional wireless model of a “hotspot” has its limitations, however. The relatively low strength of Wi-Fi signals can only reach a few hundred feet and requires “line of sight” for access. For people in their homes, an outside signal can often be weak or non-existent.

What’s more, for anyone who doesn’t own their own fiber, cable or DSL infrastructure, implementing wireless systems still means renting broadband access from an Internet service provider.

Some cities are thus pursuing options that might return the Internet to its roots as an open highway that anyone can access and which cannot bar some types of traffic or charge more for others. Successful initiatives to build municipal fiber infrastructure have been deployed across the country. One of the largest initiatives, the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA), a publicly-funded municipal broadband initiative, built fiber across 325 miles of the state and connected 250,000 homes. Many communities attempting to address the growing digital divide by implementing low-cost wireless systems or building locally owned high-speed fiber infrastructure are facing political and legal hurdles. States across the nation have rushed to pass laws prohibiting municipalities from entering the broadband market at the behest of powerful telecommunications oligopolies that funnel millions of dollars in lobbying money and campaign contribution into political coffers. (See page 8 sidebar ) When Philadelphia pursued plans to build a municipal wireless network in 2004, Verizon lobbied the State House to pass a law banning the state’s municipalities from directly offering fee-based Internet service. In order to implement wireless, Philadelphia eventually signed a deal with Earthlink to build and maintain the city’s wireless system, offering baseline wireless service at $22 a month and a lower-rate of $9.95 a month for low-income subscribers.

After similar displays of telecom lobbying muscle in other states, “Most other cities took a politically more palatable route,” notes Forlano of NY C Wireless. By the end of 2004, 13 states had implemented laws barring municipalities from competing with incumbent broadband service providers.

While efforts like those in Philadelphia elsewhere represent a step toward shrinking the digital divide, for community-wireless advocates they represent a missed opportunity for cities to radically restructure their Internet capabilities.

PASS THE CHAMPAIGN!
“The major providers that are doing [municipal] networks are solely doing them to maintain their single-payer model — one person pays a price for their [Internet] connection point. That’s why AT&T is in this, that’s why Comcast is in this — this is why Earthlink is in this,” said Meinrath, who is the co-founder of the Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Wireless Network (CUWiN).

CUWiN uses “mesh technology” to expand wireless coverage for free to anyone who has a computer and wireless card. In addition, it creates a local area network between computers using the wireless network – which can then communicate among themselves without needing an Internet connection.

While deployed on a small scale in Urbana, with only a few hundred people logged into the network on any given day, the network is a glimpse at the power that new, open-source technologies like the mesh wireless system have to connect people on a local level.

“If you have a ubiquitous wireless infrastructure that can be your communitywide broadcast station, anyone can put up a streaming server and broadcast their own radio station. Anyone can provide video… audio. Anyone can start doing web hosting in their local community,” said Meinrath.

“NEW YORK CITY ISN’T DOING ANYTHING”
Such utopian dreams — and even the possibility of building a wireless network along the lines of those in Philadelphia and San Francisco — seem far away in New York City. While most major cities already have began planning or implementing some form of a municipal broadband network in order to extend an increasingly vital resource to its citizenry, New York City has only taken the first steps in addressing broadband access.

“It’s embarrassing that New York City isn’t doing anything and every other major city in the U.S., if not the world, is doing something,” said Bruce Lai, the chief of staff for New York City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who chairs the City Council’s Committee on Technology in Government.

Nonetheless, upcoming hearings are an opportunity for concerned citizens to pressure the city to act. “If there were just floods of people with stories that helped illustrate exactly what the problem in New York was,” Forlano said, “then maybe we’d have a government solution.”

“If you don’t have [influence] on the side that controls most of the money and the policy,” Lai concludes, “the only way to get around it is to organize.”

The New York City Broadband Advisory Committee will hold its second public hearing on May 22 from 12-3 p.m. to take public testimony. The hearing will be held at Borough Hall, 209 Joralemon Street, Bkyn. For more information: nycwireless.net

PHOTO–GOT A HOTSPOT: Jonathan Evans, Michael Evans and Kamal King of Wireless Harlem (above, from left) are helping to create free wifi hotspots throughout Harlem. Photo: Mauricio Quintero