this article was published in the April 2012 Peace Council Newsletter
The Syracuse Community Broadband Initiative just received a $15,000 grant to determine the viability of a non-profit, community-owned broadband network for Syracuse. The network would provide residents and institutions with cable, internet, and phone. The network would operate like a public utility with a commitment to the best service at the least cost, and rely on subscriber revenue independent of tax payer subsidies.
Access to high speed internet, phone and television is a need in today’s society. The social, political, and economic benefits of a well connected community are too great to ignore. Yet affordable quality connectivity in Syracuse, and in the US in general, is far from universal. Some communities have taken matters into their own hands by building non-profit, communal, or municipal networks to provide universal service.
The incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will never provide the quality of service and low price that current technology could bring. Fiber optic networks are extremely expensive to build, and once built, they are very cheap to maintain. It is a natural monopoly because the barriers to entry for competition are so high. Compassion dictates that when the service being monopolized is a necessity it must be heavily regulated, or operated as a public utility.
This is commonly recognized among economists. Say that a company is given a monopoly on bridges. The company, wanting to maximize profit, builds one or two bridges and raises rates as high as possible. There is no competition to force it to lower its price, and it has no incentive to build more bridges.
The situation with broadband networks is the same: the ISPs have no incentive to improve service (lay more wires) because they have a virtual monopoly and can make more money by throttling the service and charging a premium for a faster connection. Lack of competition ensures high prices. Other natural monopolies, like electric service, may be privately owned, but the prices are regulated.
Yet broadband and cable are not subject to the same type of regulations as power companies. Federal law prohibits municipalities from regulating quality of service (speed) or price. We are forced to grant ISPs access to the public rights of way with minimal compensation.
If we want better service and cheaper prices there is only one option: to create our own network. The savings to residents would be considerable (up to 30%) and the quality of service will be amazing. A state of the art high speed fiber optic network could bring high definition video conferencing; virtually endless on-demand channels; unlimited public access stations; and ten times the speeds currently offered. These capabilities would revolutionize the way that people watch TV and communicate.
By storing all of the available content on it’s servers for on-demand viewing the need to sit through commercials, choose from a limited channel selection, and having to watch things on a broadcast schedule would be eliminated. We could download what we want to watch anytime, like universal TiVo. The network could provide thousands of additional channels on demand, along with any content that subscribers upload.
It is time for Syracuse to step into the future and take back her communications infrastructure. This preliminary feasibility study is just the fist step. To succeed we will need a concerted effort from many activists. To find out more and get involved visit SyracuseBroadband.org.
Seth is a resident of the Westcott Nation, painter (Sethpaints.com) and blogger at thealchemicalnursery.org. …