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Future Fibre: A social movement for broadband?

by on May 20, 2020

easyDNS is pleased to sponsor Jesse Hirsh‘s “Future Fibre / Future Tools” segments of his new email list, Metaviews

Momentum builds as patience is lost

We’ve been publishing our Future Fibre series for over six months. During that time we’ve learned a lot about rural and remote connectivity, as well as what kinds of policies and community action is necessary to improve it.

I’ve certainly found some solace in both learning how bad many others have it, while also building optimism that my own situation can be improved.

However one thing I feel has been missing, is a kind of social movement that transcends the self-interest that drives this particular issue. With this in mind, and as a means of reflecting on the last six months, I wrote an article on the subject for my local news outlet:

While I encourage you to read the whole thing, I offer this brief summary (of the Future Fibre series to date):

For the past six months I’ve been researching how small and rural communities create their own Internet infrastructure, and thereby solve their connectivity needs themselves. As a result, I’ve come to two primary conclusions:

Full fibre optic Internet to the home is the only cost-effective and viable long term option.

Municipal governments must play a role, either as facilitators or as funders/owners of the infrastructure.

My motivation to write the article was partly to see what kind of response there would be locally, and whether it was possible to motivate residents to demand political change. There had been a group that was active locally, but they for all practical purposes seemed defunct, and I wanted to revive interest in the issue, especially given the heightened role of the Internet in this pandemic.

After my article was published, there was a great response, with a lot of people speaking up and acknowledging that action was long overdue.

One of the members of the local group got in touch, and mentioned that one dynamic they struggled with, is that members were only active or interested in so far as their Internet sucked. As soon as they were upgraded to a decent connection, their motivation to be part of the group waned.

This struck me as one of the paradoxes of broadband activism: is it motivated by the belief that we’re all in this together, or is it just an extension of everyone for themselves? We’ve discussed this conflict in the context of the pandemic, but what about when it comes to Internet access?

It might help explain this shocking numbers that were released by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, as part of their research around Internet speeds in Canada:

Key Findings
In April, median rural download speeds were measured at 3.78 Mbps, compared to 44.09 Mbps in urban Canada – a difference of 11.7 times (Figure 1).

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, median speeds have continued to fall for rural users. Typical download speeds vary from 4 to 7 Mbps. Since February, speeds have fallen to 3.78 Mbps (Figure 2).

Urban speeds have actually increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began, climbing to an annual high of 44.09 Mbps in April (Figure 3). While urban internet users often have options to upgrade their service, options are limited for most rural users.

Rural Canadian upload speeds are, on average, ten times slower than urban speeds. Fast upload speeds are critical for video conferencing, cloud storage, and other popular productivity applications used by Canadians working and learning from home.

Overall, the median download and upload speeds for both rural and urban Canadians combined over the 12 month period were 17.56 Mbps download and 6.69 Mbps upload. These can be compared with other countries using M-Lab’s Visualization explorer here.

This growing disparity between the quality of the Internet in urban areas compared to rural communities is scandalous. It reflects the self-interest that governs Internet infrastructure. As long as you have high speed, why would you care about others? Would you even know that other people can barely use the Internet or at least the services you take for granted? What might make you care or empathize with users who do not have your speeds or quality of service?

Perhaps a comparison would help? Why not run the test below and contribute data to this ongoing study?

I just ran a test and got 2.3 Mbps down and 0.9 Mbps up. The minimum speeds mandated by the federal government are 50 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up. As you can see I’m nowhere near.

If you do run this test, and I honestly hope you do, please post a comment sharing your speed, so we can see how our network varies.

View comments

Yet to what extent does the diversity of Internet speeds make it difficult for us to unite and have a broad based broadband social movement? What might foster solidarity?

I’m reminded of the issue we published on Guifi.net and how they embraced the Catalonian art of protest, by causing traffic chaos for cottage goers by driving tractors on the super highways leaving Barcelona? Such protests were tremendously effective for Guifi.net and helped them secure government support. Would the same tactics work here in Canada? Probably not, nor might they work during a pandemic.

What about a distributed denial of service (DDoS) as protest? Imagine if one day rural communities staged a virtual protest, participating and enabling a DDoS that slowed down urban networks to the same speed experienced by rural users? Highly unlikely, but fun to imagine.

The irony is that Canadians who are organizing for better Internet are remarkably civil, responsible, and sensible. They’re also focused not just on Internet connectivity, but social and economic development overall. In an era filled with populism and popularity contests, it’s difficult for calls that demand better infrastructure to be heard.

Especially when that demand is specific. Wireless solutions have been the preferred and most promoted choice by politicians and industry groups. Moving past that mythology to understand and call for genuine solutions is difficult. Telecom can be intimidating, indecipherable, and overburdened with incoherent jargon, wireless telecom especially.

Which is why a social movement that focuses on fibre based connectivity is relatively non-existent. In spite of Jeremy Corbyn’s call for Broadband Communism, or Bernie Sander’s pledge of Broadband for All, these policies have not yet found a path out of the policy wilderness on the periphery of contemporary politics.

That needs to change. Thankfully, there are people working to make that happen. One in particular is Lis McWalter, an organizer with the West Parry Sound Smart Community Network.

Lis and other community members in her region have successfully mobilized the support of the 7 municipalities in West Parry Sound and are working to fund and deploy fibre throughout their region. In the link above, you’ll find the following list of recommended approaches and/or policies that help articulate what I would desire in a broadband social movement:

List of Recommended Approaches and/or Policies (non-exclusive) that are essential to driving the change required:

1. Immediately to alleviate current bandwidth shortage, request ISPs and Canadian Military to deploy portable Cell on Wheels (COWS) with a priority to those areas where residents don’t have internet.

2. Develop a holistic Canadian Broadband Strategy for rural internet

3. Partial ownership to infrastructure – how can the public get control for assets they have funded

4. No further monies to the oligopoly without terms favourable to the Canadian public particularly rural Canadians that will result in the objective set by CRTC

5. Policy changes will not be enough -good policy on bad policy will not fix root problem. Policies need to address the problems holistically not piece meal

6. Smaller regional players are quick to share networks and provide unlimited data – they are the answer to rural internet but they lack the incentives and capital to build.

7. Consider how to un-hinge the vertical integration of the Oligopoly (control of the infrastructure, media, and content. Canadians are NOT well-served with this situation.

8. Level the playing field for decisions made that impact policy (not all internet providers have the contacts and resources in Ottawa where policy and decisions are made – build this into the system to document number of meetings, number of meetings requested and turned down, why and how certain decisions and policies were made

9. Ontario Government should make Ontario Hydro’s pole infrastructure a public asset and rework the rules for access by regional and rural providers.

10. All infrastructure projects like roads, pipelines, wind energy projects, etc. must include conduit for future fibre or they will not receive any public funding

11. Municipalities have an important role and need to be involved in decisions BUT do not have the funds to build fibre backbone on their own. Find better ways to tie Regional ISPs growth plans with Municipal needs. Regional ISPs are the answer to rural internet

This list is fantastic, and I’m tempted to use the description demands instead of recommended approaches or policies. The time for recommendations is over, the current crisis merits that these are demands!

Demands in the sense that if they are not met, or at least addressed, immediately, by our respective elected officials, then we should elect new people. Those people should be chosen based on their commitment or ability to follow through and implement these demands.

That’s part of what would constitute or comprise a potential social movement. It might also provide a grander vision of how we’re all in this together, rather than placing the focus on each person’s personal Internet connection, which inherently divides and conquers us.

Initially the purposes of this Future Fibre series was to gather research and build an open source business plan for creating a micro-ISP or a community based ISP. That remains as part of our broader ambitions, however perhaps we should add to that the documenting and encouragement of a larger social movement around these issues? At the very least, we’ll continue to share stories and examples that highlight emerging elements of this social sector.

“Future Fibre” is a recurring series in the Metaviews newsletter where we share some of the research, other models, news, and ideas around community based connectivity. While the series is published via our newsletter, it’s also available via news.metaviews.ca/tag/fibre, so you can share the entire series with interested parties.

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