The three Republican commissioners now in power at the FCC voted this week to erase the agency’s legal authority over high-speed Internet providers. They claim that competition will protect consumers, that the commission shouldn’t interfere in the “dynamic internet ecosystem,” and that they are “protecting internet freedom.” Now that the vote is done, the agency has little to do but mess around with spectrum allocations. The mega-utility of the 21st century officially has no regulator.
Susan Crawford is a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of The Responsive City and Captive Audience.
In the meantime, fed up with federal apathy and sick of being held back by lousy internet access controlled by local cable monopolies, scrappy cities around the US are working hard to find ways to get cheap, world-class fiber-optic connectivity. It’s always been an uphill climb, as the “incumbents”—giant carriers like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T—are constantly working behind the scenes to block competition. (Recently, Comcast spent nearly $1 million opposing a municipal-fiber vote in Fort Collins, Colorado. The company did not prevail, I’m happy to report.) But now there’s an additional obstacle: Powerful right-wing billionaires have joined the fight against municipal fiber efforts, using their deep pockets to fund efforts to block even the most commonsense of plans.
Bad news for internet access—the Koch brothers are fighting low-cost open fiber nets.
Look what happened in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s a city of about 750,000, the largest in the state. Earlier this year, the city noticed that the state of Kentucky was funding a “middle mile” fiber network designed to connect the state’s 120 counties and provide cheaper connectivity for municipal buildings—KentuckyWired. As part of the project, Louisville—also known as Jefferson County—would be able to run 100 miles of fiber alongside the state network for just the cost of materials.
That seemed like a great deal to Louisville. The city estimated that if it installed fiber for city use from scratch, it would cost $15 million. With the KentuckyWired offer, the same project would cost just $5.4 million—with half of that amount dedicated to placing fiber nodes in West Louisville, a struggling, de facto segregated area of concentrated poverty, poor health outcomes, and general economic distress.
The public benefits of jumping on the KentuckyWired offer would be substantial: Not only would West Louisville get a chance at better access for its homes and businesses, but the city could install fiber-controlled traffic signals, create better and cheaper connectivity for public-safety agencies, and ship data around inexpensively to improve its operations. In a nutshell, the city would build the infrastructure and lease capacity to private internet-service providers. “We were looking at this as our smart city foundation,” Grace Simrall, Louisville’s chief of civic innovation, says. At least half of the new fiber capacity would be reserved for open access leases, to encourage last-mile retail providers to wire homes and businesses. All for just the cost of the fiber lines.
It seemed to be a no-brainer. “I can’t think of a more sensible plan,” Simrall says. “I just didn’t think that we were going to face opposition on this. We thought surely people would understand that this was a way for us to leapfrog where we were for a fraction of the cost.”
But when Simrall and her colleagues went to talk to members of the Louisville Metro Council in May, they found that interest groups, including the cable trade association in Kentucky and something called the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, had been there already. Suddenly, the city’s eminently sensible plan was in trouble. “The cable trade association in Kentucky was very vocal about how they thought that this was a waste of taxpayer money and had just spoken to numerous council members on the record about that,” Simrall says.
Then Simrall and the city found out that the Washington, DC-based Taxpayers Protection Alliance had been posting frequently on social media opposing Louisville’s fiber plan. (Typical tweet: “Google suspended its fiber efforts in many cities due to cost – now wants Louisville taxpayers to foot the $5.4M bill.” The Louisville plan had nothing to do with Google.)
That’s when Simrall learned who had joined the forces determined to block Louisville from spending a dime on fiber for the city’s use: Charles and David Koch, the brothers backing environment-hostile fossil fuels and funding politicians who dole out goodies to the super-rich. “It’s widely known that they [the Taxpayers Protection Alliance] receive a lot of funding from the Koch brothers,” Simrall says.
The connection between the TPA and the Koch brothers emerged from investigative reporting by ProPublica and others. This work has revealed that the Taxpayers Protection Alliance is a front advocacy group, part of a network of dark-money organizations supported in part by the Koch brothers. (The funding seems not to come from the Koch family directly but instead is funneled through other Koch-funded groups.) TPA’s most recent IRS filing shows it received about half a million dollars in contributions in 2016, but the sources of these contributions are blacked out. Tax-exempt organizations are not required to disclose the names of their donors publicly. David Williams, TPA’s president, told the Louisville Courier-Journal earlier this year that the group receives funding from “a lot of different sources,” including groups affiliated with the Koch brothers.
A look at the TPA blog shows that the organization fights municipal fiber as part of its general anti-government and pro-private-sector activities, claiming that “taxpayer-funded broadband is a waste of money.” This week’s post, not surprisingly, congratulates the FCC on rolling back net neutrality regulations that TPA believes were “hurting taxpayers.”
That made the Louisville fiber project a battle between those trying to help the city and outside money trying to preserve the status quo. With little time before the council vote in mid-June, and facing the prospect that the city would lose forever the opportunity to participate in KentuckyWired at cost, Simrall and her office swung into action. They patiently explained the economic and operational benefits of the city plan to council members and the public, creating a useful infographic to sum up the story. They urged residents to call council members. Simrall had come from the civic tech community in Louisville, and contacted everyone she knew. “Everybody said, ‘This is complete common sense,'” Simrall says. On June 8, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer tweeted: “Tell your council member to back #KyWired and stop the Kochs from meddling in Louisville’s progress.”
Later that month, there were two dramatic public meetings on the city’s budget for the fiber project. The first vote went along party lines, with Republicans voting against any city involvement in fiber. Simrall and her team kept fighting, and managed to convince some Republicans that the city plan made a lot of sense—especially the Republicans from districts that have suffered from digital redlining by incumbents. In the end, at the final budget hearing, the council voted unanimously to approve the request. “It was really quite a thrilling thing,” Simrall says.
At the end of the day, the Koch-funded campaign backfired. It helped fire up some council members who might not have understood the importance of city fiber; once they knew the Koch brothers were against it, the city’s plan got their attention. “That felt pretty good,” Simrall says.
If the Koch brothers were willing to throw money at opposing an incremental, cheap effort to string fiber alongside an existing state network plan, just imagine what they’ll be capable of around more ambitious local efforts. There is a major onslaught looming.
Simrall doesn’t think the Kochs actually care about fiber. “It’s all their way of opposing particular municipal or state efforts,” Simrall says.
The scary thing is that the TPA message can be effective to a public that doesn’t understand the importance of fiber and can be easily swayed by claims that internet access should be handled solely by the private sector. The same kinds of Koch-like scare-points were rolled out when the unregulated private sector was solely in charge of electricity 100 years ago. But, as Simrall points out, “At this point, who would go to a city that doesn’t have electric utilities? Who would go to a city that doesn’t have water, or access to highways? Fiber is that type of infrastructure plan.”
That doesn’t matter to the funders of groups like TPA. No matter how limited the government involvement is, they’re going to go after it.
© 2018 Condé Nast. All rights reserved.
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