Who might control the future of high-speed Internet? Will it be municipalities
and communities that can make the Internet into a widespread and affordable
public service like electricity or running water or big cable and telecommunications
companies, like SBC, Comcast, and Verizon, who would redline communities and
inflate prices to maximize profit?
On the one hand, citizens across the United States can now set up their
own affordable municipal Internet initiatives where entire communities can achieve
high- speed Internet connectivity at relatively low cost, thanks to increasingly
affordable technologies like under-the-ground copper wiring and wireless connections.
On the other hand, in the wake of a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, major cable
and telecommunications companies have been lobbying state legislatures to make
such initiatives illegal, or legal only under highly constrained conditions.
These companies rally under the banner of “telecom reform” in order
to gain captured markets for themselves.
As of July 2005, big telecom and cable companies, armed with battalions of
lobbyists, have pressured state legislatures with dubious arguments involving
“lazy public utilities” and “unfair competition” to
get anti-municipal Internet laws passed in 14 states. But also in 2005, communities
have rallied against these corporate Goliaths to preserve their rights to establish
community Internet infrastructure on their terms and costs—and they have
As of mid-2005, seven states have successfully repelled attempts at blocking
or maiming community Internet initiatives and other communities have made considerable
A citizens’ group called Fiber For Our Future worked in three Chicago
suburbs to pass a referendum to establish municipal broadband in suburbs of
Batavia, Geneva, and St. Charles. The referendum came up for a vote in 2003
and 2004. Both times the referendum was subjected to a massive corporate scare
campaign from SBC and Comcast, and twice the referendum narrowly lost at the
ballot box .
In the wake of these losses, a coalition of grassroots Illinois organizations—including
consumer rights’ groups, community technology groups, faith leaders, local
government officials, and Fiber For Our Future—met and organized under
the coalition name Get Illinois Online. The coalition quickly faced a test in
the Illinois General Assembly, which was poised to rewrite the main state law
concerning telephones and the Internet, the Illinois Telecommunications Act.
One bill, which would have eliminated community Internet, was introduced in
February 2005—then got pulled from consideration for reasons that remain
unclear. It should be noted that, at around this same time, organizers worked
to bring increased attention to the bill and coalition activists planned to
testify against it. The coalition continued to work: Illinois organizers convened
forums throughout the state, lobbied to maintain the rights of community Internet
in Chicago, and successfully blocked an increasingly pro-corporate rewrite of
the Illinois Telecommunications Act in spite of its passage in the Illinois
SBC, headquartered in San Antonio, is Texas’s leading spender in state
lobbying costs and stood to gain tremendously from gaining a captured Internet
market in its home state. Its main legislative vehicle was an amendment introduced
at the Texas legislature, HB 789, which would ban cities from offering their
own high-speed Internet access. SBC alone deployed more than 100 lobbyists—one
for every two Texas state legislators—to rally support for the bill.
Despite the alignment of such massive forces, an impressive popular counter-alignment
formed in response, including an email list called Texas Muni Action, and a
website—savemuniwireless.org— that chronicled the progress of the
bill and the swirling political fight around it. The coalition partners in Texas
included a number of Texas cities, an assortment of local public interest groups,
and even some companies in the technology industry including Texas companies
like Dell and Texas Instruments.
The Texas House passed HB 789 in March 2003, but in the Senate popular forces
delayed the legislation by organizing and voicing sharp opposition in testimony
before the Senate. That helped stymie the anti-municipal Internet provisions
in the bill before the Texas legislature concluded its 2005 session. Still,
in July 2005, there was one last attempt from big telecom: Texas governor Rick
Perry called for a special session of the legislature and thereby extended the
time the assembly could work. The municipal Internet issue was added to the
agenda, but because of fights on an assortment of other issues, the session
passed no limitations on municipal Internet in Texas.
Louisiana was one of the 14 states that passed legislation to restrict municipal
Internet rights. As a result of 2005 legislation, Louisiana now requires a referendum
for any community to establish a municipal Internet backbone. The Louisiana
town of Lafayette, population 116,000, took up the challenge and called a referendum
as required by law.
On one side, the Lafayette local government and community groups like Lafayette
Coming Together worked to mobilize support, and multiple citizen websites like
lafayetteprofiber.com and fibre911.com offered commentary and progress reports
on the issue. On the other side were Bellsouth and Cox, the incumbent telecommunications
and cable companies, whose formula for defeating the referendum was to spread
fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
Both sides ran active campaigns for the referendum, which was held on July
16, 2005 and deemed at the time to be a bellwether for similar future referenda.
The result gained worldwide attention, as Lafayette voters approved the fiber
initiative by 62 percent to 38 percent, thus effectively clearing the path for
a fiber-to-the-home initiative for Lafayette residents.
Recipe for Victory
We can also count community Internet victories on the state level in
Iowa, West Virginia, Oregon, and Indiana. From these struggles, we can learn
a number of lessons for organizers and citizens to consider in future struggles
for community Internet:
Continue on in spite of apparent losses. Fiber For Our Future
organizers lost their referendum, twice, yet provided crucial contributions
to later statewide initiatives which succeeded. Moreover, the effort helped
other initiatives across the United States, both directly, by providing testimony
and coverage at key points in various campaigns, and indirectly, by setting
an example of a grassroots campaign that fought for what it believed.
Promote the issue in any and every forum you can. The companies
fighting against community Internet can be counted among the major media in
the United States, and also serve as a source of major advertising dollars for
other major media corporations. As a result, Big Media tends not to give the
issue of community Internet initiatives much sympathetic coverage—or,
for that matter, any coverage at all. Thus, community organizers must become
their own media and use whatever available media there are to raise awareness
of the issue. Such available media may not have the cachet of Big Media outlets,
but still can go quite far in helping get the word out.
Set up communications infrastructure among organizers. Many
campaigns have built their own online mailing lists, websites, blogs, newsfeeds,
and other tools to share information and news about ongoing campaigns, especially
in a realm like community Internet, where struggles change rapidly.
Realize the weapons of the other side. Big Media have lied
often in order to bolster their case, mainly because many times they have no
case. One such example is a Verizon “fact sheet” passed among legislators
in Washington, which cited many supposed community Internet “failures.”
A study by the media activist group Free Press showed that when the claims were
given the most basic examination, they withered almost immediately.
Join forces with unexpected allies. One extraordinary facet
of this issue is that it dissolves typical political lines. Both “red
states” like Texas and Louisiana and “blue states” like Illinois
have worked to defend community Internet rights. Moreover, different constituencies
within and across states have collaborated in assorted campaigns. An organization
of Chicago-area ministers known as the Ministerial Alliance Against the Digital
Divide (www.maadd.org) joined the Get Illinois Online coalition. The forces
fighting in Texas included computer corporations like Dell, Intel, and Texas
In response to these local and statewide victories, big cable and big telecom
have begun to take this to the federal level. On May 26, 2005, U.S. House Representative
Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas, introduced the “Preserving Innovation
in Telecom Act of 2005,” a federal bill which would abolish the rights
of states and municipalities nationwide in one fell swoop. Not coincidentally,
Pete Sessions used to work for SBC and at the time he introduced the bill his
wife still worked for SBC; he also held about $500,000 in SBC stock options.
Fortunately, a bill to counter Sessions’s bill has been introduced in
response. Two senators, New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg and Republican
Senator John McCain have introduced the “Community Broadband Act of 2005,”
which would overturn all state-level legislation banning municipal Internet.
Unfortunately, since the battle has been moved out of the state level and into
the federal level, the struggle is now more between competing industries—cable
and telecom versus computers and software—and less of those most impacted
by these laws.
The importance of the victories can’t be overstated, particularly in
the wake of a 2005 Supreme Court ruling which may prove critical to the future
of the Internet. The case is called the Brand X case, referring to an Internet
service provider in California that sued the Federal Communications Commission
over discriminatory policies concerning network access; Brand X lost in the
Supreme Court. What this decision could mean is that what had been understood
as a public resource— the connecting infrastructure of the Internet—now
can fall under private carriage. Since the current cable/telecom duopoly in
the U.S. is responsible for some 98 percent of broadband connections, those
connections that fall outside that duopoly may remain the only free remaining
Then there’s the digital divide, which community Internet initiatives
also address. Forty percent of homes currently have no Internet access and the
trajectory of the spread of the Internet is leveling off. Meanwhile, many local
government and community resources are migrating services to an online-only
arrangement amid budget cuts. The importance of the Internet as a communicative
medium in other ways will only increase.
Certain communities are left behind, frequently along class lines, by incumbent
Internet providers over concerns of profitability. Community Internet initiatives
may help to provide that necessary public service and even a leveling effect.
The future of community Internet is not set in stone but rather in wet cement
and, as we’ve seen, the current trend is to organize and win—a trend
that will hopefully grow.