Is There Another, Grassroots Way to Network Neutrality?

I am always a bit uneasy with policy campaigns, especially those in which the only option for positive political action seems to be, basically, “call your Congressperson!” So, as concerned as I am about the real threat that AT&T and Verizon are about to tier off and filter our internet, I am also uncomfortable thinking that the only way to prevent this is through lobbying and legislation.

So, the question is: what is another way to achieve network neutrality?

By way of comparison, the micropower unlicensed radio movement provided both an immediate means of communication and an impetus for policy changes in DC, which helped begat LPFM. While I did write my Congresscritters on LPFM, I’ve also lent support to the microbroadcasters who pushed the boundaries (and still do). Now we have LPFM and micropower stations continue to fill the gaps.

Another example is Indymedia, which fights consolidated corporate control of media by providing a functional alternative. And while Indymedia is not yet a household name on the order of Fox News, it is a growing movement and phenomena that succeeds on almost no funding, and neither government nor corporate support.

Both of these grassroots movements have effected change without simply relying on lobbying and legislative politics.

So how can we ensure a free, untiered and unfiltered internet in some similar proactive, grassroots way?

The problem with the internet is that Verizon and AT&T own so much infrastructure. Here in Champaign-Urbana, IL, you basically get your internet from either SBC/AT&T or the local cable company, which actually used to be owned by AT&T when the service was built (and I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t hook up to AT&T lines at the head end). If you buy DSL from the local “competing” telephone company, odds are you are actually just gettting it from SBC via the competitor.

Thus it is a question of infrastructure. One answer is certainly to build out alternatives like community wireless networks, but you’re still left with finding a high-bandwidth connection to the public internet, which has a good chance of being provided by one of the big telcos.

If it’s not the “last-mile” lines into homes, then it’s the larger network pipes provided to ISPs and businesses.

Can we build an alternative internet infrastructure that successfully routes around pipes controlled by the likes of AT&T and Verizon?

In other larger cities, this may be less of a question — I really haven’t researched it yet, and maybe a reader has some insight. But certainly in smaller cities and rural areas you’re lucky to have more than one broadband provider, and are probably lucky if there’s any competition at all in the broadband fiber lines that provide backbone service to your area.

Now, Google has apparently bought up lots of unused “dark fiber” which could be used to build a network infrastructre that routes around the likes of AT&T. But given Google’s recent willingness to censor search results in order to please China, I’m not so sure I ready to trust them that much more than AT&T. The choice there is really the lesser of two evils.

Could there be an Indymedia of internet infrastructure? Could the noncommercial, nonprofit sector obtain dark fiber and recover some onramps to the internet?

Can we ensure network neutrality by creating a truly neutral network of our own?


4 responses to “Is There Another, Grassroots Way to Network Neutrality?”

  1. George Avatar

    “So how can we ensure a free, untiered and unfiltered internet in some similar proactive, grassroots way?”

    I don’t think you can. Why? Because the Constitution doesn’t guarantee it.

    I gave this analogy before, and it was shot down. But it’s the truth. The 1st amendment allows you to say what you want. It doesn’t guarantee anyone has to listen. It doesn’t ensure we all have the same access to the same tools to say what we want. Some people must take to the streets. Others go on Fox News. Nothing equal there.

    We already have several tiers of internet access. We have dial-up, which is basic. We have a few levels of broadband. And then there is the super tier, used by large corporations. I expect there will be at least one more even faster system at some point. We pay different fees for these services, and we get different packages for the money.

    If you study civil rights law over the past half century, you’ll see that there are very few times when the courts have said everyone deserves the absolute best, most expensive system. They usually set minimum standards in terms of health care, education, and housing. That’s what the law allows. But I don’t see a legal precident to the idea that everyone deserves the same access to the fastest internet service. Especially when we have so many people currently living in sub-standard housing, on sub-standard income, with sub-standard health care. It opens a door that our government is not prepared to open. Which is eliminating the benefits enjoyed to those who are willing to pay extra. It also ensures that if the higher tier isn’t permitted, we will all pay more for what we get. Either way, the price is going up.

  2. […] Andrew at funferal takes up my question about a grassroots effort for network neutrality via constructing neutral networks, and brings up a good point about Universities: Incidentally, if we’re looking for a useful partner for the grassroots, why not look to the Universities. They probably have as much capacity as Google, if not more, with nodes in more places. […]

  3. alevin Avatar

    The municipal fiber model is sweeping Europe, in cities including Amsterdam and Paris. Perhaps the combination of the muniwireless model, plus examples of regional fiber in places including Oregon and Utah, can spark a similar trend in the US. Areas where municipalities provide “wholesale” fiber, and ISPs compete to provide service, have broadband services that are faster and cheaper than the duopoly.

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