ACLU: If Americans Want Privacy & Net Neutrality, They Should Build Their Own Broadband Networks

from the breaking-the-logjam dept

More than 750 towns and cities across the United States have been forced to build their own networks if they want anything close to next-generation broadband. These towns and cities aren’t doing this because it’s fun, they’re doing it as an organic response to market failure, and the growing cable monopoly that fuels high prices, poor coverage, and abysmal customer service. By and large the incumbent response to this shift hasn’t been to offer better, cheaper service, but to literally write and buy protectionist laws in more than 21 states prohibiting locals from making their own decisions.

ISPs also like to demonize these efforts as automatic taxpayer boondoggles, which not only isn’t true (municipal broadband, like any other business plan, can be well or poorly designed), but ignores the fact that these towns and cities wouldn’t be getting into the broadband business if existing service wasn’t so expensive and shitty across wide swaths of America.

Not too surprisingly, the Trump administration’s decision to protect these disliked monopolies by killing net neutrality and broadband privacy protections is only driving more interest in such alternative solutions. For example, the ACLU has issued a new report stating that if cities want privacy and a neutral internet, they should join the trend of building their own networks:

“The internet has become a crucial utility, yet unlike water and electricity, quality broadband service in the U.S. is far from universal. Twenty-four million Americans don?t have access to high-speed internet at home, either because it?s not available or too expensive. Lack of access to decent broadband is especially bad in low-income or rural areas and communities of color. In general, there?s very little competition in this market, with most people having only one or two choices of an internet service provider. As a result, internet service in the United States is slow compared to many other countries.

Hundreds of cities, towns, and counties around the country have already turned to community broadband, often providing faster and cheaper service than for-profit telecoms. And, municipally-owned broadband providers can honor net neutrality and privacy values, regardless of what the FCC does or doesn?t do. With these public systems, communities can ensure that internet service is provided in an equitable way.

Except thanks to Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Charter and CenturyLink’s lobbying stranglehold over our leaders, terrible state laws prohibit many locals from being able to even consider the option. This protectionism has been such a problem, companies like AT&T have even tried to sneak anti-community broadband language into unrelated traffic bills when nobody was looking. In some cases, these laws go so far as to ban towns and cities from even striking public/private partnerships with the likes of Google Fiber or Tucows’ Ting.

The ACLU advises residents of states that have such restrictions (you can find a complete map here) should, first and foremost, fight to reverse such protectionist measures:

“Unfortunately, telecom lobbyists have convinced at least 21 state legislatures to enact restrictions or outright bans on the ability of municipalities in those states to create their own broadband service ? thereby leaving people no choice but to utilize the commercial services that are often slow, unjustifiably expensive, and now poisoned by their lack of protections for privacy and network neutrality…Residents of those states should start by demanding that their state legislators reverse those laws.

Like net neutrality, ISP lobbyists have had great success framing municipal broadband as a “partisan” fight in order to sow dissent and prevent anybody from disrupting their cozy status quo. But wanting better broadband (or wanting a say over tax spending and infrastructure) isn’t a partisan concept, and by and large municipal broadband networks are most commonly built in conservative areas. Our collective disdain of Comcast appears to be one of just a few things that easily bridges our deep partisan divides.

Still, after decades of disinformation on this front, ISPs have been very effective in getting people to believe that building your own broadband networks is a vile socialist cabal that always ends in wasted taxpayer money and tears. But again, these towns and cities wouldn’t even be considering this if they were happy with incumbent broadband options. These attempts to demonize local broadband networks successfully obfuscate the fact that incumbent ISPs like Comcast are dictating both state and federal policies that are only making our broadband connectivity and competition problems worse.

With ISP lobbyists only making already frustrated towns and cities angrier with the net neutrality repeal and attack on consumer privacy laws, they’ve only guaranteed that more towns and cities than ever before will be pursuing the roll-your-own option when it comes to broadband. And it’s only a matter of time before people catch on and these state-level bans start to be dismantled. If ISPs like Comcast and AT&T don’t like it, they have an obvious solution: actually start competing and provide better, faster, cheaper service.

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Comments on “ACLU: If Americans Want Privacy & Net Neutrality, They Should Build Their Own Broadband Networks”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

“building your own broadband networks is a vile socialist cabal that always ends in wasted taxpayer money and tears”

Unlike the caring incumbents who have changed customers name to asshole, lied to customers, lied to regulators, & a host of other things they can only do because they are the only game in town.

There are several models of communities who have made awesome muni-networks.

You could “waste” a tiny bit of tax money & get a sub-par service… and it would run rings around whats out there.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I remember when I said that it was better for these muni-networks to be created on the ashes of NN.

But when I said that you all dumped on me. And now you folks say things like this…

“You could “waste” a tiny bit of tax money & get a sub-par service… and it would run rings around whats out there.”

You guys are mentally inept, you are so socially engineered to be suckers that it takes your own petards blowing up in your faces to make you realize that something is wrong. You still have not recognized your mistakes with blind support for the shit show that was wheelervision NN but it looks like you silly nincompoops are getting a clue!

I look forward to the day where you loonies finally get a clue… a day that will never come.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Response to: Anonymous Coward on Apr 12th, 2018 @ 4:12pm

Actually, I think there’s a slight seed of legitimate objection underlying the point.

Back during the Obama administration, when Wheeler was attempting to impose vaguely-meaningful network-neutrality rules, ISTR the campaign against them frequently attempting to claim that Obama was trying to impose government control of the Internet – either ignoring the middleman, or alleging that Wheeler was doing it because Obama had told him to.

IIRC, there were articles posted on Techdirt which objected to that spin of the story, pointing out both that “it’s not government control of the Internet” and that the FCC can act – and was acting – on its own authority without direction from the White House. (Also IIRC, the Obama White House eventually put out a statement explicitly stating that it had provided no such directions to the FCC.)

To my eye, referring to Pai’s actions with the name of the Trump administration does indeed look like a lesser form of that same sort of offense.

It’s not as severe as claiming that he’s doing it because Trump told him to would be – the Pai FCC is indeed part of the Trump administration, and it’s legitimate in principle to refer to it as such – but it does serve as a way to link the two in readers’ minds, and thus to tar one with the same brush as the other, irrespective of whether that’s actually deserved.

Anonymous Coward says:

The choice for getting broadband are not Limited to existing providers or a municipal network. There is a third option, and that is for the people who want an Internet connection to get together and install a fiber network themselves. It is a viable option for rural area, as the actual installation is not that hard, and so long as land owners along the routes desire broadband, getting the rights of way, and running in the ducts and access points is not that hard, especially when done in co-operating and with the assistance of local farmers.

hpr0980 :: Broadband for Rural North goes into the instalation of a 150 mile fiber broadband network to 1700 homes farms and schools, designed and installed by some of the users of that network.

49er says:

Re: 3rd Option

“There is a third option…”


… private citizens cooperating with each other for a common purpose, without government command, is how most of America works and how America was built.

people handing their money & control to local politicians is not more efficient than doing it themselves or chartering a new private business to do it. having the government do anything doubles the cost (on average) over private enterprise.

you think your local politicians are smarter and more productive than you are ?

how did all those supermarkets, service stations, restaurants, plumbing services, etc get started without your politicians establishing them all?

(if only Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had gone to politicians to start reaching their technical goals, rather than building their own organizations from scratch?)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 3rd Option

Of course they are the same, all of them are organizations of resources to achieve a goal.

Main difference is who they are accountable to:

– Companies are only accountable to the owners/stock holders/themselves in the end.
– Organizations are morally accountable to their supporters, and legally accountable to those that donated to them (but only to the limit that they need to be transparent with the money given and use it for what it should be used).
– Governments are legally accountable to their citizens.

As always, in the end it isn’t just a matter of public or private, but also the nature of the regulations and the intentions/ethics of those who manage a service.

In case of public, you get a say regarding those intentions (at least as a customer). In case of private, you don’t, except via regulations.

Regulations aren’t good or bad by themselves, it depends on their nature:

– Net Neutrality is a regulation that promotes sharing of resources and not screwing people.
– Copyright, on the other hand, promotes private property of intellectual rights and the ability to tell others what to do about their private property. See that this one isn’t pro-private or pro-public, because it screws a lot of private users in the benefit of a few ones.

In the end, it’s up to what you want: spreading wealth or concentrating wealth?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Hah, you know they’ll call even private cooperatives socialism (technically they’re right but that’s irrelevant) since the people shouldn’t have the right to self-determination in economic activities. They need corporations to “guide” their consumption and maximize shareholder value. How can that do this if they own the means of data distribution and share the load equally among themselves? /s

Basically, that’s how I see it going down in the coming years. As people start taking common ownership of various business ventures we’ll see major corporations finding ways to disclaim such actions. Either by calling it cultic or socialistic. Anything and everything will be throw in the path of such actions but in the end I think the momentum toward a common ownership of most things will erode what little power capitalists have over people. It’s hard to profit from people who don’t see the end goal of their ventures to extract rent from each other.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Overwatch

We have restrictions on what we can or can’t say or share on the internet as it is.

That would tend to indicate a difference in regulation, since generally you can do whatever you want with the electricity and water you buy (other than some restrictions such as watering lawns in drought areas). How the US manages broadband compared to water and power is totally different.

That One Guy (profile) says:

That's ONE option, yes...

And it’s only a matter of time before people catch on and these state-level bans start to be dismantled. If ISPs like Comcast and AT&T don’t like it, they have an obvious solution: actually start competing and provide better, faster, cheaper service.

Given that would require them to compete, which would ding their profits, they probably aren’t too keen on that idea. I suspect that long before they went that route they’d try to get a federal law in place to prevent cities/towns/states from ‘wasting taxpayer dollars with unnecessary and risky expenditures’.

In fact the BDAC’s recommendation as of a few months ago(Ars did a nice article covering it) is basically exactly that, where the priority is heavily focused on private ownership and operation, where cities would be required to jump through multiple hoops, giving companies like Comcast essential veto power over any planned network they didn’t own, and even if a town fully funded and built a local network entirely on their own there would still be a requirement for private companies to be granted use of it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Broadband is great but what about tv?

Having municipalities build out their own broadband service is something I would like very much but when Comcast and ATT own the pipes and the tv programming too, it will be hard simply compete. I have Comcast internet and directtvnow but Comcast plays this game where they will throw in cable tv for free if you only have internet with them. It cost me $69 for cable internet and $35 for directvnow. Comcast has offers all the time that would give me tv and internet for $69. I don’t know if simply having a municipal broadband service could compete simply on broadband only.

Frank Palladino says:

Garbage thinking

I’m reacting to the title more than anything. What garbage. Build it yourself or deal with it. How about we retract the special rules that utility providers get to exempt them from certain practical consideration as we will certainly not get the same special rules and treatment if we ‘build it ourselves’. Nevermind the fact that these services are natural monopolies that need to be government regulated as per econ 203 for the most efficient expenditure of resources. Lets not forget that net neutrality rules were passed to countermand certain restrictions in the communications act of 1934 regarding entities classified under title 1 of said act reclassifying the ISPs to title 2 of said act. This reclassification was don in response to several lawsuits from ISPs which maintained that they could run roughshod over the rights of their users to free and open access to the internet and the reclassification to title 2 was a result of this outcome. In other words, the fcc and the American people at that time felt that a title 1 classification was inappropriate and a massive grassroots movement was formed to ensure the reclassification. Several years later and shills undo the will of the people. We must stop them. Or at least reverse their actions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Garbage thinking

Oh… look a poor little sob that doesn’t understand.

You got this destiny on the path you took to avoid it. Next time you ask for government to save you from the big bad market instead of fighting back with your money and other, you just get what they decide to give you.

“How about we retract the special rules that utility providers get to exempt them from certain practical consideration as we will certainly not get the same special rules and treatment if we ‘build it ourselves’.”

Yea… how about you do that? When I said as much “BEFORE NN FAILED” you all just scoffed at me and called me stupid… what changed your little crybaby mind now?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: not possible in some states

as I posted above, there is a third option, and that is for the community to do it themselves, by forming a co-operative company and doing the work themselves. When the land owners benefit, and the is a bit of flexibility over routing and cabinet placement, rights of way are more easily negotiated. Most farmers know how to mole in ductwork, and splicing fiber is an easily learnable skill.

Do state laws prohibit such an approach?

NeghVar (profile) says:

Re: Re: not possible in some states

So it sounds like you are saying that the people do all the work of installing and maintaining their community ISP. The only involvement with the governmental part of the city is the city giving them permission to dig and build within city limits and on public property. Am I correct?

I’m certain the lawyers and lobbyists of big ISP probably know ways to twist the interpretation of the law to make it so that even the slightest involvement of the city governance makes it municipal instead of community.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: not possible in some states

They do… they do!

But citizens coming together and building their own networks, as a smackdown to the ISP that have managed to bend regulations in their favors, is the way to go.

This is why we need a free-market so that people can do just exactly this sort of thing without an ISP being able to challenge them. The barrier of entry must remain low or you just create a monopoly through regulatory effort.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: not possible in some states

The linked HPR shownotes from my first post contain various useful links, also the podcast itself is worth listening to, and will answer your questions better than I can. It is an interview with the person who was behind the effort to get the community a decent broadband service.

Anonymous Coward says:

Another facts optional opinion from TD as usual!

“they’re doing it as an organic response to market failure,”

This is a failure of your regulatory zealotry. “The Market” is not something that succeeds or fails, it just is what it is, you are using it as a nebulous term to remove blame from your ignorant positions.

You failed, you help make this bed, lay in it!

You deserve it!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Another facts optional opinion from TD as usual!

I believe what TD is referring to is that America is considered to have a, more or less, free market system. At least it’s supposed to.

The problem is that in the ISP market space, that has failed and has become a monopoly, or, at best, a duopoly. There are very few regions in America where you can choose between Comcast or Charter. Generally speaking you have a choice of maybe one cable provider and one DSL provider.

This is what they mean by market failure. The ISP free market has devolved into a monopoly/duopoly and customers have no recourse because their choices are either bow down to the demands of their local ISP or go without internet altogether. A working ISP free market would see users be able to ditch their cable provider for a different, completely independent cable provider that could offer them better pricing/features/speed/etc…, whatever it is they aren’t getting from their current provider. Right now that doesn’t happen because there is only one choice.

Also, when there is a "market failure", as described above, the only way to fix it is through regulation, be it anti-trust or otherwise, coming in and forcing companies to play fair or break up. Utility services are regulated as monopolies because not just anyone can decide to provide water or electricity.

Broadband, while not regulated as such, suffers some of the same issues because the barrier to entry is so high (namely the extremely high cost of purchasing fiber, permits to dig or attach to poles, company startup costs, payments to incumbent ISPs to let them attach to the poles/existing infrastructure, lawyer fees to fight the ISPs when they say no and sue you to stop you from creating your own broadband infrastructure, interconnection fees to access the rest of the internet, etc….). So while anyone technically can start their own ISP, not everyone has the combined resources to do it, not even if you get a whole community pitching in.

So, what it boils down to is, we either need to break up the current ISP monopoly/duopoly stranglehold (this would require some form of anti-trust regulation or other regulation that would vastly lower the cost of entry into the ISP market), or we need regulation that forces ISPs to play fair and nice, and not treat their customers like dirt. Removing regulations, as a certain FCC chair did (who will currently remain nameless), does the exact opposite. By removing the rules, ISPs get to do whatever they want with no fear of repercussions.

So please, do tell me how the TD article is "facts optional" and how "The Market" is what it is and doesn’t succeed or fail, and also how removing all regulation of ISPs will "magically" solve all our problems. I’ll wait.

Anonymous Coward says:

I disagree, somewhat

What we really need to do is stop sending telcos any unencrypted data or useful metadata. Network neutrality is a non-issue if they can’t see what we’re doing. Even "good" networks, like municipal ones, can’t avoid NSA spying unless we do this—meaning municipal networks won’t really give us privacy, they’ll just be less bad.

11b3vw8 (profile) says:

It Can Be Done

After years of ATT, Cox and others failing to deliver on broadband to rural areas, our local Electric Coop finally took the bull by the horns. (NW Arkansas). The past year or so they’ve been building out a fiber network to service all their clients. And its awesome. Have mine installed. They run the fiber into the house, not some last mile ethernet or such. I get private IP’s, 1000gb unlimited for 79.00 a month. Can also get phone and TV service if desired. Freaking amazing. They own the lines so no issues there, not sure where they get the back-haul from. Local utilities can make it happen.

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