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Grassroots internet offers hope for net neutrality advocates

Locally owned broadband is a potential nightmare for big corporations.

FILE PIC: A sign with an emoji reads "Don't take net neutrality away" is posted outside the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, Thursday. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
FILE PIC: A sign with an emoji reads "Don't take net neutrality away" is posted outside the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017, Thursday. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

For years, the city of Detroit has been a byword for urban decay in America. Crippled by the decline of the automotive industry, the city has suffered from high crime rates, political corruption and endless cutbacks endangering its public services.

But Detroit has also suffered from a chronic lack of investment in its digital infrastructure. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an astonishing 40 percent of homes in Detroit have no internet access of any kind, and 70 percent of the city’s schoolchildren have no internet access at home. This lack of infrastructure has had a devastating effect upon the city’s low-income population, particularly those who are looking for jobs.

“It’s like fighting without a sword,” nonprofit director Deborah Fisher told The New York Times. “Broadband access is a challenge and a major factor in economic opportunity and employment here.”

FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn called the situation “unacceptable” when she visited the city in 2015. “We have reports of students heading to McDonald’s not just to buy a value meal, but to do their homework over the free Wi-Fi network,” she said at the time. “The bottom line is this: If you are not connected to the Internet…you cannot participate fully in our economy and our democracy.”

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Thankfully, however, some residents have started to fight back — by building their own networks. The grassroots Equitable Internet Initiative (EII) is one example, building high speed internet access in low-income Detroit communities. As Motherboard reported, with the EII, the internet is beamed in via antenna and then shared by dozens of homes in a network together, offering residents basic WiFi along with a localized communication network.

These types of small, homegrown Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer broadband options to individuals in low-income or rural areas where telecom giants like Comcast and Verizon are reluctant to invest significant amounts of high-speed internet access.

Rick Cobb is a good example of how these smaller networks work. Fifteen years ago, when his broadband needs grew beyond the dial-up internet that telecom companies were offering in rural Colorado, Cobb banded together with a group of neighbors to create their own ISP, VICE reported. “We tapped into this huge, unmet demand for higher-speed internet connectivity,” Cobb said.

Following last week’s net neutrality vote — in which the FCC moved forward with plans to give corporations more control of the internet and potentially create a tiered internet structure — the idea of organic, homegrown broadband like Cobb’s suddenly seemed a lot more appealing.

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But it’s not just rural and low-income areas that are moving forward with these plans. Cities and states have started looking into alternate broadband methods as well. In June, the Louisville Metro Council in Kentucky moved forward with plans for a $5.4 million project to expand KentuckyWired, the state’s homegrown, ultra-fast internet network designed to connect Kentucky’s 120 counties and provide cheap internet to municipal buildings, as well as surrounding homes and businesses. And in Hawaii, state Rep. Kaniela Ing is drafting legislation that will explore the possibility of community-owned broadband.

“Some municipalities…have already shown that public and community-owned broadband attracts technology, businesses and provides some of the nation’s fastest, affordable and most reliable internet to everyday people,” she said in a press release.

Naturally, telecom corporations are unhappy with the trend. Earlier in December, it was revealed that Comcast had spent $900,000 fighting a municipal resolution in Fort Collins, Colorado, that cleared the way to the city establishing its own broadband network. The motion passed, despite the opposition. (Embarrassingly, the pro-municipal broadband group, Fort Collins Citizen Broadband Committee, had only spent $15,000.)

In Louisville, the Koch brothers-funded Taxpayers Protection Alliance was fiercely critical of the city’s municipal broadband proposition, arguing that the idea was a “waste of taxpayer money”.

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“I just didn’t think that we were going to face opposition on this,” Grace Simrall, Louisville’s chief of civic innovation, told Wired. “We thought surely people would understand that this was a way for us to leapfrog where we were for a fraction of the cost.”

FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s decision to repeal net neutrality has galvanized activists who want to keep the internet free and open — and some are already preparing legal battles. Grassroots broadband creation is another weapon in the fight against America’s widely-hated ISPs. But as corporate pushback involvement in Lousiville and Fort Collins shows, they’re not willing to go down without a fight.