On a daily basis, how many times do you use the Internet? And what do you use it for? Maybe it would be easier to ask a different question: What don’t you use it for? And can you even imagine living without it? A month and a half ago, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration showed how many Americans are doing just that: living without reliable Internet access. With the release of the National Broadband Map, a searchable, interactive map that charts the availability of broadband—a fast connection to the Internet that’s always on—we can easily see where holes exist in our national access.
Take a look for yourself, but what you’ll find is that wide expanses of the mountain West, Southwest and inland Northwest are, essentially, broadband deserts. Five percent of Americans can’t get online at speeds efficient enough to allow for basic Web functions like downloading images, sending email, browsing, and video chatting. And an additional 5 to 7 percent of Americans have substandard broadband, meaning that they can access the Internet, but at comparatively slow, unreliable speeds.
It’s already been proven pretty extensively that the Internet has crossed the line from “extraneous luxury” to “essential tool,” with its advantages in supporting local commerce, getting and maintaining a job, connecting you to government officials, providing entertainment, and giving you the chance to read cool alternative men’s magazines. That’s why it’s no longer acceptable for so much of the country to be left behind without high-speed Internet.
Just last week, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a community-development-focused advocacy group, released its own map of Internet coverage to highlight an alternative, under-the-radar approach to expanding access. Their map specifically charts publicly owned fiber-to-the-home and cable networks. It displays a wide range of over 50 towns and cities that have developed their own broadband networks and made them municipal services.
Christopher Mitchell headed up the effort to develop the community broadband map, and he also authored the accompanying report—“Publicly Owned Broadband Networks: Averting the Looming Broadband Monopoly.” He described why his organization’s map is effective:
The point of our map was to illustrate the size of the community broadband movement. … This map helps to show that there are a lot more broadband networks that are owned by the community than people had suspected. So it helps to move it forward in terms of making it less of an oddity and more of something that’s been around for more than twenty years.
The success stories of community-supported broadband are plentiful, but the story of Windom, in the southwestern part of Minnesota, effectively conveys the power of these networks. Back in 1999, the rural community—population 4,600—wanted to upgrade their publicly owned communications outlets to include fiber technology. They decided to wait because the city’s provider of local telephone service promised an upgrade to DSL, or digital subscriber line, later that year. But soon, the company backpedaled, deciding it was more profitable to invest in several communities surrounding Windom, but not to build a network for Windom. Frustrated, the town decided to invest in its own high-speed future, transforming their cable network into a fiber-to-the-home network in 2000, making them one of the pioneers in publicly owned broadband.
Mitchell highlighted the significance of Windom’s decision:
We want broadband to cease being viewed as a business venture and start being viewed as an infrastructure. Broadband networks are more akin to roads in that they facilitate all other commerce, all other interaction, culture—it’s a fundamental part of the community infrastructure. As such, it needs to be responsive to the community itself.
Many of the current Internet providers are not responsive to the communities they serve—and that’s often because they run a monopoly on Internet service in certain geographic areas. This lack of competition is a large focus of Mitchell’s research. He says the National Broadband Plan, the program that funded the creation of the National Broadband Map, plays right into the hands of corporations by acting as though they are the only option:
The broadband plan neglects one of the best tools, which is networks that are not operated for purely commercial reasons. It’s easy to leave the rural areas behind if you’re going to cede all broadband to private companies, because the private companies simply don’t want to invest in rural areas. Rural areas, however, do want to invest in themselves and should be encouraged to build their own broadband networks.
It’s these sorts of creative approaches to corporate obstacles and locally focused economic endeavors that continue to blaze a trail in terms of how small communities can make important choices to benefit their residents—after all, the publicly owned networks are almost without exception less expensive and more reliable and efficient than privately held networks. And with something as important as Internet access, which impacts so many facets of our day-to-day interactions, working toward these less-expensive, higher-quality solutions is crucial.
—Photo Antonio Nicolás Pina