Future Fibre: Broadband’s political moment

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The people are angry and demanding action

The pandemic psychology is shifting as most people wrap their heads around how long it will last, and what the world might be like, if and when it ends.

No surprise that the Internet is a prominent feature of that future. In the absence of a prepared and responsive government, the Internet has conquered all. Which is why governments are responding and investing in Internet infrastructure. Not just for their own sake, but due to overwhelming demand from the public.

Up until this point I’ve been skeptical as to the wisdom and effectiveness of federal or provincial/state based broadband policies. In Canada such policies have only favoured entrenched incumbents and former monopolies, and in the US it’s been even worse, with some states outlawing community or municipal internet.

The close proximity and contact that municipal government has with it’s residents is largely why that level of government has been effective and responsive in addressing broadband issues. However the pain and problems for some residents are so large that higher levels of governments are now compelled to act.

This week in Canada our federal government used some language that we’ve been using in this Future Fibre series, along with a goal that is ambitious and overdue.

I have to commend it to this government that using the Internet as an argument for economic resurgence and social development is smart. The real question will be whether they can deliver and how.

What might be the most interesting aspect of this announcement is the Rapid Response Stream.

The objective of this stream, which has a budget of up to $150 million, is to enhance household access to high-speed Internet in the very short term or before November 15, 2021 to address immediate broadband needs and to contribute to the acceleration of the connectivity timelines and ambitions of the Universal Broadband Fund. It will allocate contributions of up to $5 million to projects that can be deployed quickly and have a big impact on networks in rural and remote areas where Internet service speeds have not yet reached 50/10 Mbps.

For a government program that is an incredibly short turn around. Applications are currently being accepted on an ongoing basis until Jan 15th of 2021. At the very least it will be interesting to see who is funded and what they do.

The concept of a rapid response stream not only helps expand access quickly, but it could provide a metric or basis by which to estimate how to scale access across the country.

Saying you’ll get 98 percent of people is ambitious, even if that stat is already weighted to people living in cities.

But there was skepticism about how well the government will follow through on its promises and its ability to make sure the money rolls out quickly to projects that will make a difference for families and businesses outside major urban areas..

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce and OpenMedia, for instance, welcomed an extra $750 million that the government is making on top of $1 billion originally announced in March 2019.

But both the business lobby group and the non-profit consumer advocacy group said they want to see that the Trudeau government follows through on its promises of better internet and wireless service for underserved areas.

An argument we’ve been making here in the Future Fibre series is that wireless is not a viable long term option. Totally fine in the interim, which is why the rapid response stream may feature it heavily, but long term fibre is the smart and equitable choice.

Not just fibre for the sake of it, but community fibre that responds to and reflects the needs of the community.

But OpenMedia campaigner Erin Knight said it remains concerned that a majority of the funds will go to benefit Big Telecom — meaning the country’s large phone and cable companies.

“We’d like to see the government’s investment actively put toward smaller, local, community or Indigenous-led projects,” Knight said.

Indigenous-led projects are essential if Internet access in Canada’s remote and northern regions are to be taken seriously. While satellite is the only option in some places, that doesn’t have to be true long term, and how that satellite service is configured and delivered is crucially important.

As a result, the part of this announcement that sees Telesat get $600M is a little suspect and will be subject to greater scrutiny by us in a future issue.

We’ll obviously follow how the Universal Broadband Fund is spent and the impact it has moving forward as part of this series.

Meanwhile, our friends in the US successfully passed two relevant resolutions in this recent election:

In Chicago, roughly 90 percent of voters approved a non-binding referendum question that asked: “should the city of Chicago act to ensure that all the city’s community areas have access to broadband Internet?” The vote opens the door to the city treating broadband more like an essential utility, potentially in the form of community-run fiber networks.

In Denver, 83.5 percent of the city’s electorate cast ballots in favor of question 2H, which asked if the city should be exempt from a 2005 law, backed by local telecom monopolies, restricting Colorado towns and cities from being able to build their own local broadband alternatives.

Colorado is one of nearly two-dozen states that have passed laws, usually directly written by regional telecom monopolies, that hamstring or prevent the creation of such networks.

It’s absurd that such laws exist, but it is encouraging to see that their starting to be pushed back.

The results of these ballot measures are also significant, and not uncommon. The issue is not whether these initiatives are popular elsewhere, but to what extent.

Similarly cities the size of Chicago and Denver have significant resources, and it will be interesting what kind of initiatives or infrastructure they choose to invest in. Hopefully it provides examples and inspiration for other cities and communities.

Of course this isn’t just a North American issue, but a global one. In communities with less resources, open source ends up playing a crucial and enabling role:

The Department of Science and Technology said Tuesday it is planning to build “community-based cellular networks” in 10 remote areas across the country to provide internet connectivity that could aid in distance learning.

“We are planning to set up in 10 very remote places just to show that it can be done even if the big telcos are not located in these areas,” DOST Secretary Fortunato dela Peña said during the Senate’s hearing of his agency’s proposed 2021 budget.

Philippine Space Agency Director-General Joel Joseph Marciano said the community networks will use open-source technology to build “infrastructure like LTE that can provide connectivity in those areas.”

“Our small satellites can provide basic communications that can support that ground infrastructure,” Marciano said.

As momentum builds, so too does the knowledge of what is possible, along with the ability to achieve it.

However our impatience for better connectivity may distract us from the longer term concerns of infrastructure. That is the irony or paradox of this moment. We use language like infrastructure and economic development but we also want the urgent and instant gratification of broadband connectivity.

How do we balance the policy priorities of connecting people as fast as possible while also recognizing the impact of designating infrastructure as essential? How are the policy decisions we’re making today shape the reality of our futures?

The pandemic has widened the sphere of life dependent on such market technologies, heightening existing questions around the political, legal, and economic governance of these companies. How should the fabric of social life, especially as it is rewoven by the pandemic, relate to the private ownership of telecommunications?

Two legal regimes regulate the ownership of and access to telecommunications technology: the market disciplining forces of antitrust law (along with allied concepts like public utilities regulation), and the national security protections of critical infrastructure regulation. Certain applications of the former, concerned primarily with market power, identify privately-owned infrastructures that are “essential,” and regulate firms to ensure that access to that infrastructure is made available to competitors and consumers on reasonable terms. The latter, on the other hand, identifies infrastructures that are “critical,” and regulates them to serve the US’s national and economic security interests.

But both the market and national security regulatory systems leave in place the business model of telecoms, and consequently, we argue, cannot ensure the civic provision of what are now essential communications tools. While utilities regulation like “net neutrality”—which requires equal and nondiscriminatory treatment of content moving through telecoms infrastructure—may curtail certain malign effects of concentrated market power, it preserves the market dynamics that create the problems in the first place. These two regulatory frameworks are consistent with the continued functioning of what has been called informational capitalism.2 In the economic organization of technology, people are either employees, consumers, “users” whose data can be monetized, or some combination of the three. Firms exert power over individuals who, confined to these roles, do not have collective bargaining power with which to exert their interests.

If civil society is to retain political autonomy with respect to information technology, it will require exerting democratic political power. In what follows, we outline the history of the two existing legal approaches to regulating telecommunications, and then turn to several policy ideas—including public ownership and bargaining structures—aimed at asserting that power.

This long but fascinating article provides a powerful overview of the impact policy has on telecommunications, how we communicate, and thereby how we live. It argues that it’s not enough to deem the Internet essential infrastructure, but that how we govern it is even more important and influential on our lives and society.

Since about 2017, activists, academics, and politicians around the world have been fostering and developing a “new municipalism” movement, which pushes for the municipal appropriation of formerly privatized assets and resources.31 Drawing on the history of “gas and water socialism” and “sewer socialism,” it favors commonly owned civic platforms, community management of public space and services, and municipal dominance over industrial and corporate market actors.32 The goal of the new municipalism is to extend municipal control over digital infrastructure. Within the world of new municipalist platform politics, Barcelona has become a center of democratic action, especially in the world of smart cities, pushing against corporate providers of civic cyber infrastructure.33 The goal is to limit the possibility that data generated through interaction with public space and services will be fed into the political economy of big tech accumulation. During Covid-19, we have already seen some municipalities take these risks seriously: at least one Germany city, Bühl, has provided an open-source video chat platform, Jitsi, to its citizens so that schools and churches could meet during the lockdown.34

The Covid-19 pandemic has made clear how dependent social have has become on private telecommunications infrastructure. Neither antitrust regulation nor national security regulation are sufficient to prevent the erosion of civic autonomy. Rather, protecting the domains of civic society and private life from being controlled and exploited will require the exercise of democratic will. Policy options that strive to restore the balance of power will arise when people and their governments act to bargain and assert power and terms of use over technology firms.

This suggests that the Canadian federal Universal Broadband Fund is incomplete, as it does not also include provisions for how that Internet connectivity is governed. How those communities should govern how they live and work online. More reason of us to follow the impact of this policy and funds moving forward…

“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.

Finally, check out this forum for the Denver municipal broadband ballot measure.

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