Furious About Your Cable Bill? Go Tell City Hall

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This post originally appeared at The New York Times.

lousiana still
Residents and officials of Lafayette, Louisiana took on phone and cable companies and set up their own fiber-optic broadband network in 2009. (Still/Moyers on America)

Last week’s proposal by the Federal Communications Commission to allow Internet service providers to charge different rates to different online content companies — effectively ending the government’s commitment to Net neutrality — set off a flurry of protest.

The uproar is appropriate: In bowing before an onslaught of corporate lobbying, the commission has chosen short-term political expediency over the long-term interest of the country.

But if this is the end of Net neutrality as we know it, it is not the end of the line for fair and equitable Internet access. Indeed, the commission’s decision frees Americans to focus on a real long-term solution: supporting open municipal-level fiber networks.

The commission’s decision frees Americans to focus on a real long-term solution: supporting open municipal-level fiber networks.

Such networks typically provide a superior and less expensive option to wholly private networks operated by Internet service providers like Comcast and Time Warner.

The idea of muni networks has been around for a while, with bipartisan support. When the Telecommunications Act was under discussion in 1994, Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, was one of its most enthusiastic supporters. Thanks to him and others, the act, passed in 1996, prohibits states from putting up unreasonable obstacles to any entity that wants to provide telecommunications services.

So why didn’t a thousand muni networks bloom? After all, the 1996 act was aimed at increasing competition. But private providers rightly recognized muni networks as a threat and in the subsequent decades have pushed through laws in 20 states that, despite the 1996 act, make it difficult or impossible for municipalities to clear the way for the sorts of networks that the 1996 act envisioned.

Watch how Lafayette, Louisiana prepared to get its fiber-optic network.

That means that the main problem behind getting muni networks up and running isn’t about the technology — which not only exists, but is already being used in large and small cities around the world — but about the politics.

As a first step, Americans need to focus their efforts on getting these laws taken off the books. (To its credit, the FCC recently signaled its willingness to help, saying it would consider blocking those laws at the federal level.)

Mere legislative change won’t be enough, however. We need to elect leaders on the basis of their commitment to changing America’s stagnant communications infrastructure.

There is much to be done at every level of government, but cities are the most promising battleground right now. Mayors, Republican and Democrat alike, are in the business of providing their citizens with services, and fiber infrastructure is just like a city street grid: Economic development, quality of life, new jobs and a thriving competitive market all depend on its presence.

Mayors, Republican and Democrat alike, are in the business of providing their citizens with services, and fiber infrastructure is just like a city street grid: Economic development, quality of life, new jobs and a thriving competitive market all depend on its presence.

Most important, cities have assets in the form of control over conduits, poles and rights of way that can be used to support the provision of competitive fiber-optic networks. Since 1998, my hometown, Santa Monica, California, has been saving money by shifting from paying expensive leases on private communications lines to using its own fiber network, called City Net.

The city planned carefully and built out City Net slowly, taking advantage of moments when streets were being opened for other infrastructure projects. Businesses in Santa Monica now pay City Net a third of what a private operator would charge and the city government has made millions leasing out its fiber resources at reasonable rates to other providers.

According to Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a national expert on community networks, more than 400 towns and cities across America have installed or are planning networks. And that’s not just good for consumers; it’s good for business. Companies are moving to places like Wilson, North Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee, because those cities provide public, inexpensive, high-capacity connectivity.

American cities need fast, cheap, ubiquitous, open fiber networks and every city has the tools at its disposal to get these networks built. But there are powerful and well-funded incumbents who will fight any mayor brave enough to consider the idea. If you’re furious about your cable bill and worried about Net neutrality, go tell city hall.

Susan Crawford is a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.
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  • JonThomas

    Excellent article! I’m posting through my local Municipal Utilities System network right now! Our local municipal utilities company includes electric, water, sewer, and fiber optic services. Up and running since 2006, our community’s fiber services include a ‘Fiber To The Home’ cable television, telephone, and broadband internet network (gigabit services available.)

    Our municipal enterprise, serving a fairly small town of 30,000 citizens, has better and cheaper services, with more customizable options than the corporate competitors. Further, and perhaps most importantly, not only is it less expensive (as profit beyond salaries are not the focus,) but nearly every dollar spent stays in our community! In this age of corporate consolidation within the communications industry, we don’t have to even consider boycotting, or having ethical compulsions against using our network.

    If your community hasn’t explored this option, they are missing out on one of the best and most important decisions of our time.

  • Anonymous

    We need to have a national discussion about what belongs in the public commons. The capitalistic system breaks down when there is a service that is an accepted necessity that is naturally provided by only one or two providers. In these cases, government-owned services provide superior cost and service. The services I would strongly recommend for the public commons are as follows:

    Military (with a minimum of services contracted out)

    Healthcare insurance — Medicare for all

    K-12 education, roads, fire dept., police, prisons, sewer, water, power and cable

    For simplicity, I have not listed oversight functions such as judicial system, SEC, Motor Vehicle Bureau, etc.

    Beyond municipal cable, I would recommend nationalizing the interstate cable system to eliminate monopolies. This would also allow the reconstitution of the Fairness Doctrine for political campaigns which existed when only the public airwaves were used for TV transmission.

  • Anonymous

    I attempted to sign up my elderly aunt for cable. She lives in an assisted living
    facility that does not furnish cable to residents. All efforts to find basic cable that she could afford–she has only $50 extra dollars a month for personal expenses–were futile. The monthly price had gone up $2.33 since the previous month when I was checking on prices. They could give me an intro rate for 6 months but the bill would rise to even more after.

    These old folks have limited pennies. If these companies want to continue to collect these pennies, they need to charge the pennies the folks can afford or there will be NO pennies for the company.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post! As a nation, we have lost sight of what “We, the People” means. It’s time we opened our eyes.

  • Jack Fuller

    Municipal networks may be fine for “the last mile” of internet access. But what of the lines between cities? Would they not still be in the hands of the trunk line ISPs? With just a few trunk line ISPs, will there be effective competition?

  • Anonymous

    My total cable bill from AT&T went up 60% this month. My
    Internet bill alone went up 80% this month. We all know that we have the most
    inferior cable and internet in the industrialized world. We rank at the bottom
    at 29th. But, it is also the mostexpensive compared to anyone in the industrialized world. These gatekeepercompanies were handed the Internet and the Airwaves on a silver platter by theGovernment. Then American People paid over $50 Billion to lay the cable linesthat got handed over to these cable companies. The Government created these monopolies resulting in their supreme overcharging of their billing fees. Now
    we have a duopoly where AT&T and Verizon own 60% of the business.

    In retaliation to my overpriced new monthly bill, I looked
    into changing carriers from AT&T to someone else. The only one available to
    me is Direct TV. AT&T has a special relationship with them and offers them
    to you if you don’t like your bill and want to switch. But this is a duplicitous
    relationship since AT&T has recently offered to buy Direct TV as a move to
    offset the current merger proposal between Comcast and Time Warner. I also feel
    that there is a type of gerrymandering of cable companies at play here. If,
    Obama lets these mergers happen then he will have a hand in creating even
    bigger monsters. The Government likes monopolies, it makes things easier for
    them to control including the people. This industry is already price fixed but
    any chance of competition will completely go out the window if this happens.

    This entire cable, phone and internet business is completely
    out of hand. It is an abomination. America ranks last in service and 1st in the
    highest price. What disturbs me enormously is that the American People own the
    Internet and they own the Airwaves. The American People are the “Land
    Lords” but they do not get one dime in rent from these
    “Poachers.” Not one dime!

    This Cable and Internet service and billing fees is
    completely out of hand. It is wrong, wrong, wrong and more wrong. A complete
    overhaul is needed here immediately.

    I have done the research on service and fees from other
    Countries. Here is 2 examples.

    Americans pay four times as much as the French for an
    Internet triple-play package—phone, cable TV and Internet—at an average of $160
    per month versus $38 per month and these companies still make money.

    The French get global free calling and worldwide live
    television. Their Internet is also 10 times faster at downloading information
    and 20 times faster uploading it.

    Hong Kong has internet speed of 1 gig and the charge is
    $25.00 per month.

    90% of the Internet fees billed are profit and this fact is
    from the Wall Street Journal.

    Over 40% to 50% of Americans cannot afford cable. And this %
    is even higher for Seniors. How sad is this?

    As an example, Americans do not own the oil business or the
    healthcare and pharmaceutical industry so we are at their mercy on pricing. However,
    we do own the Internet and the Airwaves. We have to figure out a way to stop
    these guys in their tracks and get this cable and internet problem righted once
    and fore all!!!!

  • Anonymous

    I think that it is very important to point out this fact:

    • Remember the so-called “Information

    Over the course of the last 20 years, the
    “Telecom Superhighway” has collected 500 billion from the Government
    at Taxpayer expense. That works out to $3,000 per household to have access to
    high-speed Internet. However, didn’t the American People already pay for the
    development of the internet through the Department of Defense? Why are the
    American People paying to lay cable for the Gatekeepers to bill the American
    People for using those cables? There is no other country in the world that has
    done this to their people.

    • So where are all the Superhighway “Fiber
    Optic Lines” that everyone should have? The answer is that only the very
    few have these lines. America did not get what it was promised and that 500
    billion was a giveaway, at taxpayer expense. We are 29th in the world and the
    most inferior and expensive telecommunication service. So this is

  • Kanta Bhagat

    Thank you for your programs. Thank God for the basicTV and inter net connection. You are on public ch. I can only afford the basic which is not cheap. It comes close to $50 which I could use for more important things. But I need the connection to be connected to out side world. I am very angry and disappoined with our present government which has sold itselt to the big businesses. I am shocked at the Democrats to see how most of them are working for big businesses. I feel helpless and keep hoping that may be a miracle will happen and rich people will realize that having a whole lot of whealth doesn’t make anyone happy.

  • Invasive Evasion

    I would even consider adding food production to that list.

  • Invasive Evasion

    I’m in the same situation as you, stuck with overpriced AT&T. The pricing on their packages is dishonest. They have nearly flat pricing regardless of what speed you get, so that a consumer has no option for cheaper slower service. For example, an 18Mbps connection (without tv) costs $65, while a 6Mbps connection costs $55. This is the consequence of monopolistic control.