Neutrality Begins At Home: What U.S. Mayors Can Do Right Now to Support a Neutral Internet

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Deeplinks Blog/EFF

Neutrality Begins At Home: What U.S. Mayors Can Do Right Now to Support a Neutral Internet

Photo: Free Press/ cc/ Flickr

This weekend at the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting in Dallas, some mayors will take a strong stand in support of net neutrality. According to an op-ed by Mayors Ed Lee of San Francisco and Ed Murray of Seattle, the city leaders are unveiling a resolution calling on the FCC to preserve an open Internet.

This is good and welcomed news. The mayors get it: a free and open Internet is critically important for the health of U.S. cities. “The Internet has thrived because of its openness and equality of access,” reads the mayors’ op-ed. “It has spurred great innovation, while providing a level playing field for its users. It allows everyone the same chance to interact, to participate, to compete.”

Here’s some even better news:  while the FCC may have a role to play in promoting and protecting a neutral Internet, city governments don’t have to rely entirely on the FCC. In fact, there are two things Mayor Lee can do right now to protect the future of our open Internet: strongly support municipal wireless and light up the dark fiber that weaves its way under the city of San Francisco. And other mayors around the country have the same opportunity, if they’ve got the will to take it.

Light up the Dark Fiber

“Dark fiber” refers to unused fiber optic lines already laid in cities around the country, intended to provide high speed, affordable Internet access to residents. In San Francisco alone, more than 110 miles of fiber optic cable run under the city. Only a fraction of that fiber network is being used.

And San Francisco isn’t alone. Cities across the country have invested in laying fiber to connect nonprofits, schools, and government offices with high-speed Internet. 

Light Up Competition

Community broadband is not a silver bullet for net neutrality. But it can help promote competition by doing one essential thing: offering people real alternatives. 

In most U.S. cities there is only one option for high-speed broadband access. This is because in the early 2000s the FCC thought that competition alone would do the job of regulatory oversight, but instead Internet access providers consolidated to the point of no competition. And this lack of competition means that users can’t vote with their feet when monopoly providers like Comcast or Verizon discriminate among Internet users in harmful ways. On the flipside, a lack of competition leaves these large Internet providers with little incentive to offer better service. 

A non-neutral Internet, enabled by access monopolies, means that new businesses in cities could be crippled from reaching potential customers, as users are channeled toward incumbent websites and those in a special relationship with the Internet access providers. The result: a less diverse Internet and a weaker local economy.

Real Political Will Can Overcome Artificial Political and Legal Barriers

Let’s take a look at Chattanooga, Tennessee, a city that has better broadband than San Francisco. Chattanooga is home to one of the nation’s least expensive, most robust municipally owned broadband networks. The city decided to build a high-speed network initially to meet the needs of the city’s electric company that needed a way to monitor new equipment being installed throughout Chatanooga. Then, the local government learned that the cable companies would not be upgrading their Internet service fast enough to meet the city's needs. So the electric utility also became an ISP, and the residents of Chattanooga now have access to a gigabit (1,000 megabits) per second Internet connection. That’s far ahead of the average US connection speed, which typically clocks in at 9.8 megabits per second.

And in Missouri, the city of Springfield crafted laws to navigate around state restrictions on municipal broadband. Now Springfield provides its own access service, SpringNet, and is offering residents high capacity fiber Internet service.

Unfortunately, many cities have faced serious barriers to their efforts to light up dark fiber or extend existing networks.Take Washington D.C., where the city’s fiber is bound up in a non-compete contract with Comcast, keeping the network from serving businesses and residents.

San Francisco doesn’t have the same kind of contractual barriers that D.C. has, but the city’s network is still under-used. San Francisco’s fiber connects important institutions like libraries, schools, public housing, and public wi-fi projects. However, according to Harvard University researcher Susan Crawford, San Francisco “has not yet cracked the nut of alternative community residential or business fiber access.”

Here, too, San Francisco is not alone. Right now 89 U.S. cities provide residents with high-speed home Internet. And dozens of cities across the country have the infrastructure, such as dark fiber, to either offer high-speed broadband Internet to residents or lease out the fiber to new Internet access providers to bring more competition to the marketplace. So the infrastructure to provide municipal alternatives is there in many places – we just need the will and savvy to make it a reality that works.

That said, the most outrageous barrier is a legal one: state laws, promoted by powerful incumbent Internet access providers, that impede competition by imposing restrictions on cities’ ability to grow broadband networks. Twenty states currently have laws that restrict or discourage municipalities and communities from building their own broadband networks.

Fortunately, the FCC has said it will challenge these laws. But the FCC can’t create the political commitment to actually making community broadband happen. That’s up to us.   

All hands on deck

It’s going to take a constellation of solutions to keep our Internet open. But where those options don’t depend on regulators and legislators in D.C., we don't need to wait.

Whether it’s lighting up dark fiber or starting a municipal broadband network, we can tell our elected officials that it’s time to take action to protect our open Internet.

That’s why we’re calling for all hands on deck. In cities with dark fiber, like San Francisco, it’s time to light it up. Mayor Ed Lee knows the importance of an open and free Internet. San Francisco is renowned for being home to some of the most innovative Internet companies and startups in the world. The city should be a leader in community broadband as well. 

But what’s really exciting is that this is one area where we call all be leaders. We can all organize locally and urge our city officials to support municipal and community broadband projects. To help spur that work, EFF will be sharing more ideas and tools for activism in the coming weeks.

And remember: the FCC is seeking public comment about how to craft new network neutrality rules. Visit DearFCC.org right now and make sure the agency hears us loud and clear: we’re not going to let a few Internet access providers decide the future of our open Internet.

April Glaser

April Glaser is a staff activist at EFF, where she focuses on community outreach and blogs about a wide range of digital rights issues. She works directly with community organizations interested in promoting free speech, privacy, and innovation in digital spaces, and she lectures frequently on these topics for groups large and small.

Corynne McSherry

Corynne McSherry is Intellectual Property Director at EFF, specializing in intellectual property and free speech issues.

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