Commentators have taken to the pages of Slate and elsewhere to decry proposed FCC rules that would authorize discrimination by cable and phone companies. The rules would take effect for service over the “last mile”—the part of the infrastructure that’s in your neighborhood and leads directly to your door—allowing your retail Internet service provider to decide which sites load slower or faster for you, based on how much money content providers can pay.
This is bad when you think about how few companies would be making those decisions, due to massive consolidation in the industry (just think Comcast-Time Warner-NBC-Universal). And it’s even worse when you think about the implications for a free press, or for a democracy writ large. But I for one am hoping that the proposed rules might mean the beginning of a new way of thinking about the Internet.
Up until now, the effect of so-called “net neutrality,” a loose patchwork of rules to keep the Internet “open,” has been invisible to people. But it may just be that now—between the proposed FCC rules and the Time Warner-Comcast merger—things are bad enough that people are ready to start innovating around the edges.
You may have heard of “community supported agriculture” (CSA) or farm shares. Essentially, it’s a model of cooperative investment that sidesteps massive agribusiness. Members pitch in in advance to cover the anticipated costs of a farm operation. In return, they receive shares of the farm's bounty throughout the growing season. Farmers are relieved of the burden of advertising and distribution, and since risk is distributed throughout the member base, they can afford to do “slow” or organic farming. CSAs have now become commonplace—you can find them in most U.S. cities.
Could “community-supported broadband” work for the communications industry the same way that community supported agriculture worked for agriculture? Instead of complaining about Comcast or Verizon on their neighborhood listservs, could communities could pool their purchasing power to choose their own last-mile solutions?
I know of only a few places trying out models like this—and some of them are places where my organization, the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, has supported the efforts of community organizations. (Disclosure: Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.) For example, in Red Hook, Brooklyn, our partners at the Red Hook Initiative buy bandwidth from local ISP BKFiber and train Digital Stewards to operate and maintain a community wireless network. In Kansas City, Missouri, the Free Network Foundation buys bulk middle-mile bandwidth and runs on a cooperative and volunteer-driven network. WasabiNet in St. Louis, Missouri, is building local mesh networks with different tiers of access depending on what you pay.
In fact, there are any number of options for what last-mile infrastructure can look like—communities can invest in “mom-and-pop” last-mile infrastructure shops like the Red Hook Initiative does. They can get together, purchase middle-mile “bulk” bandwidth and figure out how to build their own neighborhood wireless networks like the Free Network Foundation. They can (in places where it’s legal) work with their municipalities to activate existing resources such as dark fiber or municipal bandwidth. They can create bandwidth-sharing partnerships with nearby universities or other institutions. They can work with their local business improvement districts to build shared community-local-business networks.
The first key is cooperation. Instead of each individual buying his or her own Internet subscription, communities would need to collaborate to share the benefits and risks of investment in alternative and bulk broadband services. They would have to develop or choose last-mile solutions tailored to their needs, capacities, and resources.
The second key is scale. Not “scaling,” or infinite growth potential, but rather the limited scale that allows for local decision-making and does not draw the ire of big broadband. As long as costs are covered, and risk is distributed, limited scale allows for attention to quality. With community-supported broadband, consumers could design and support "organic" last-mile services—without packet inspection, surveillance, or preferential treatment for Web services that can pay more.
This is not to say that it’s easy to build, organize, and plan local broadband. It’s a labor of love. Few communities feel that they have the technical expertise to even know what it takes, and those that do often feel they don’t have the organizing chops to pull it off. And beyond even the time it takes to start something up, you have to think about maintaining it for the long run. Finally, you have to do your research to figure out whether the ISP you’re purchasing bulk bandwidth from is actually itself buying from Comcast or some other last-mile provider somewhere along the supply chain. Even if you buy bandwidth from a local ISP, you might still experience discriminatory service, since some local ISPs themselves purchase bandwidth from big retailers like Comcast. The only way you could avoid the discriminatory service would be to buy from a middle-mile or "Tier 1" provider.
But the point is: It is possible for consumers to choose for themselves the level of effort versus the amount of money they're willing to spend on last-mile broadband access. They can build it themselves, or pay someone to build it—but they do not have to be locked in to buying from Verizon or Comcast. They can choose the business model they wanted to pursue—from coop to mom-and-pop ISP to neighborhood barn-raisings and work parties.
Want to start a community-supported broadband movement in your area? A few first steps for communities interested in exploring the idea might be to consult the Open Technology Institute’s Commotion Construction Kit, or the great resources at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Wireless Networking in the Developing World is also a good resource for any community. Or you could reach out to the geeks and the organizers in your town: look for hacker- or makerspaces, and think about the anchor institutions—schools, libraries, community development corporations, business improvement districts, or even the local barbershop or café—where people come together to plan and create great things for your community.
The net neutrality ruling is very bad. It may even be worse than you think. But is it bad enough to get people to organize for something truly innovative? Let’s hope so.