The Common Good
May 2010

Corporate Blocks on Broadband

by Danny Duncan Collum | May 2010

Will one-fourth of our citizenry be left in the digital ditch?

High-speed Internet service arrived at our home this week. We’re only one decade late for the 21st century, and the rejoicing has reached the heavens.

We live in a mostly rural county of about 35,000 people, and for most of us the only alternative to dial-up is satellite service, which is high-speed but not as fast as cable broadband. Satellite is also unreliable in bad weather and very expensive.
My family’s digital leap forward came thanks to a local wireless company that started several years ago to provide high-speed business access for some of our big farmers. They began by putting transmitters atop grain silos, offering free service to the silo owner in lieu of rent. Now they have some real towers, and one of them can hit our hilltop home. If we lived in a valley, we’d still be out of luck.
All of this is not just a personal problem. Almost 10 percent of the U.S. population still has only dial-up, which, at this point, is almost unusable for anything except text e-mail. Add in the folks with no Internet connection at all, and you have one-fourth of our people left in the digital ditch. Those folks are not just missing the piano-playing cat on YouTube. The disconnected are also, for example, unable to take online college classes or download many public documents that are no longer readily available in print. And, increasingly, they simply don’t know what is being talked about during election campaigns that are often driven by online video postings.
The Obama administration came to power promising to fix this problem. And they made an excellent start by putting $7.2 billion in the stimulus bill to subsidize broadband access. But as of February only $300 million has been awarded. The obstacle to progress here is not bureaucratic inefficiency or political interference. It’s corporate greed.
First, the big telecom companies (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, etc.)—the only entities that could get this job done on the scale needed—have refused to apply for stimulus contracts. That’s because the rules of the program require “net neutrality,” meaning the new broadband networks created with stimulus help (cable or wireless) must be open to all potential users without restriction. For instance, under net neutrality, a large cable TV provider such as Comcast could not force its broadband customers to download movies from its own service by blocking its competitors’ Web sites.
To oversimplify only slightly, Big Telecom is prepared to write off a quarter of our citizenry just to protect its power to control and meter the information spigot.
And that’s not all. Those same companies that have refused to participate in broadening high-speed access are also trying to stop relatively small, community-based, public-private partnerships from filling the gap. The biggest corporate Internet provider in the state of Maine, for instance, is promoting state legislation to prohibit the University of Maine from providing resources for a rural broadband project.
Meanwhile, Comcast has filed a complaint aimed at blocking a stimulus broadband grant to the city of Philadelphia and a coalition of community groups. If funded, the Philadelphia project would provide more computers for public libraries and neighborhood centers and create wireless hot spots in outdoor public spaces. Comcast claims this would constitute unfair government competition, since they are already providing broadband to Philadelphians who can afford it.
So far, the Philadelphia project has not been funded. And given the Obama administration’s growing record of caving to corporate power (the banks, the health insurance companies, Big Pharma, etc.), the folks in Philly better not hold their collective breath.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.
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