The Federal Communications Commission is asking for nothing more than to place broadband under the same controls that helped spread telephones across rural America.

[imgcontainer right] [img:earlyphone.jpg] The Federal Communications Commission is asking for nothing more than to place broadband under the same controls that helped spread telephones across rural America. [/imgcontainer]

The definitive battle for the future of the Internet is underway.

On June 17, the Federal Communications Commission, now with a 3-2 Democratic majority, moved to reclaim its authority over broadband Internet service; a federal court had overturned FCC action – using a weaker telecom rule – to prevent abusive practices by broadband providers.  

The FCC’s move is also critical for the implementation of the National Broadband Plan, which Congress last year ordered the FCC to draft to address the growing disparities in broadband access, adoption, and affordability.

The National Broadband Plan makes clear that subsidies are needed to ensure broadband deployment in rural areas and other underserved communities. 

The question we and our elected officials face is this:  Will these subsidies be used to free our communities to become more self-reliant, or will they keep us in a state of dependency on Wall Street-backed conglomerates?

The only legal mechanisms by which rural Americans can express their preference for broadband dependency or self-reliance are Congress, the courts, and – most directly – the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC’s June 17 Notice of Inquiry asks for public comment on its proposal to regulate broadband under the rules originally designed to govern traditional phone networks. 

This may be rural America’s only opportunity to tell the FCC that we prefer self-reliance to dependency, that underserved communities are capable of building and operating their own broadband networks, and that we need a strong FCC to stand up to Wall Street on behalf of Main Street if broadband self-reliance is in our future.

The deadline for public comment on the FCC’s Notice of Inquiry is July 15. The deadline for replies to these comments is Aug. 15.

Everyone should comment. (You can make a comment here.) But before you write, consider a little history. 

Eight years ago on March 14, 2002, the five-member Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to surrender voluntarily its authority over broadband Internet access via a cable modem. The vote split along party lines: Republicans led by FCC Chairman Michael Powell voting for, the two Democrats voting against.

The FCC press release that day predicted that the unusual and controversial move “will promote broadband deployment, which should result in better quality, lower prices and more choices for consumers.”

The vote reclassified cable broadband from a “telecommunication” to an “information” service, thus exempting cable broadband access from “common carrier” obligations that had governed the nation’s telecommunications since the days of the telegraph. 

One of those obligations was allowing independent Internet service providers (ISPs) to re-sell cable broadband access.  A decade earlier, common-carrier rules helped the Internet move from government and academic circles into mainstream American life by creating a market for independent ISPs to lease and resell dial-up access over the nation’s telephone networks. [imgcontainer] [img:ppcommissioners2009.jpg] [source]Federal Communications Commission[/source] The Federal Communications Commission (above) is trying to reassert some control over broadband. The members of the Commission are (from left) Mignon Clyburn, Michael J. Copps, Julius Genachowski, Robert M. McDowell, and Meredith Attwell Baker. [/imgcontainer]

Michael Copps, one of two Democrats on the FCC, criticized the reclassification for “substituting our own judgment for that of Congress and playing a game of regulatory musical chairs by moving technologies and services from one statutory definition to another.”

Meanwhile, an ISP in Santa Monica, California, called Brand X filed suit, and a federal circuit court struck down the FCC’s cable broadband reclassification. The FCC appealed, and on June 27, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court in a 6-3 decision.

Reporting the “Brand X” decision the next day, the New York Times noted Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent: “[Scalia] wrote that the commission’s ruling was trying to further a free-market agenda, through ‘an implausible reading of the statute, and has thus exceeded the authority given it by Congress.’” Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter joined Scalia’s dissent. 

The telephone industry immediately petitioned the FCC to “level the playing field” with cable by removing common-carrier obligations from its digital-subscriber-line (DSL) broadband service. On Aug. 5, 2005, a still-divided FCC concurred.

In the years since the FCC’s reclassification of cable and DSL broadband, consider what’s happened to broadband:

•Thousands of independent ISPs have disappeared.

•Cable and telephone companies gained control of more than 95 percent of all U.S. broadband connections.

•America’s world rankings for broadband access, speed and cost have fallen sharply.

This is the context for the FCC’s June 17 decision and for the struggle now taking place in Washington, D.C.

The stakes are high. The Internet’s explosive growth – and the spectacular innovation it has spawned – were enabled by common-carrier protections that still govern the nation’s dial-up telephone networks. 

Before 2002, online users were at the center of the Internet and World Wide Web, free to choose among competing ISPs, and free to roam and innovate. 

With the removal of common-carrier protections, the cable and telephone companies occupied the center of a broadband-driven Web, free to pick winners and losers among innovators — consider AT&T’s exclusive iPhone deal with Apple — and free to dictate when and where broadband access will be deployed.

In short, the definitive battle for the future of the Internet is underway. The cable-telco duopoly has huge advantages in this conflict:

•Superior lobbying forces in Washington and every state legislature.

•Fake grassroots, or “Astro-turf,” groups – plus Fox News and talk-radio allies – to denounce any government move to restore ISP competition and consumer protections.

•Commercial broadcast allies intent on retaining control of unused swaths of the public airwaves that could otherwise be used for wireless broadband expansion in rural areas.

Finally, this is a complex issue requiring serious attention and debate, both scarce resources in a sound-bite society ruled by propaganda and sloganeering.

Moreover, the future of the Internet is being decided with professional journalism on life-support, unlikely to provide little more than superficial coverage. Adding insult to injury, a recent Supreme Court decision (“Citizens United”) granted full speech rights to corporations for unlimited media and campaign spending in federal elections, a sea-change not lost on members of Congress up for re-election in November.[imgcontainer] [img:wardssets.jpg] Early telephone equipment advertised in a Montgomery Ward catalogue. [/imgcontainer]

The frustration of rural residents and other underserved populations runs deep. Frustration, however, can breed confusion, especially when telecom lobbyists swing into action. Recently, 74 Democrats signed a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genakowski expressing “serious concerns about . . . the expanded FCC jurisdiction that has been proposed.” (More than 200 Republicans signed a similar letter.) 

The letter deceptively points to a 1998 Clinton-era FCC decision affirming the 1996 Telecommunications Act’s treatment of Web content and dial-up ISPs (unrelated to broadband) to imply that the FCC’s 2002 ruling was merely a continuation of Clinton-era policy. And the letter implied that the FCC’s June 17 move disrupts a “stable regulatory environment that has existed for the last dozen years . . . [and] undermines critically important investment in broadband.” 

Such blatant whitewashing of the Bush-era FCC’s actions on broadband – falsely portraying a continuous 12-year bi-partisan policy – is clear evidence that the letter was written by telecom lobbyists, who no doubt knew that most Congressional staffers would lack the insider’s knowledge to catch the deception.

Of course, rewriting history is what lobbyists and propagandists do routinely. And the intricacies and complexities of telecom policy make their jobs all the easier.

But advocates for rural America and other underserved areas have history on our side.

Transportation and communication infrastructure have long been used by Wall Street-backed companies to exploit rural America and its resources. Only when rural leaders (not on the corporate payroll) took hold of the levers of power in Washington and in state capitals were grievances redressed and self-help programs like rural telephone and electric cooperatives begun.

These locally-owned and accountable nonprofit providers helped move many rural communities from dependency to self-reliance in electric power and telecommunications. 

The same is possible today with broadband infrastructure in rural areas. The cost of digital network technologies continues to drop as efficiency grows, making it economically feasible for rural and other underserved communities to build and operate broadband networks.

These locally owned networks have many advantages. They are less likely to outsource jobs, and they keep revenue in the local economy. They are locally accountable and more responsive to community needs, unlike absentee-owned networks whose tech support and management can be so hard to reach they might as well be on the dark side of the Moon.

This future-of-broadband decision will be made by our government. Those who reduce this historic and complex decision to simple slogans – such as “Keep the government’s hands off the Internet” – would perpetuate our dependency on the cable and telephone conglomerates, which used an act of government to gain control of broadband in 2002!

Will our government rule this time in favor of Wall Street or Main Street?  The answer to this question is in our hands.

Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), a nonprofit community broadband network serving Asheville and surrounding counties in western North Carolina. This is an edited and expanded version of a column that originally appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times on June 16, 2010.

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