In a NYT Op-Ed yesterday (reproduced below), erstwhile candidate for
FCC Chair Professor Susan Crawford meekly protests the current FCC
Chair’s proposal to gut network neutrality and replace it with a
pay-for-play system of fast lanes for bigcos and slow lanes for the
rest of the Internet’s 3 billion content creators.

Professor Crawford says not to worry because Municipal Networks.
She says,

“… the commission’s decision frees Americans to focus on the
only real long-term solution: supporting open municipal-level
fiber networks.”

Municipal networks are no substitute for network neutrality. Muni nets
are a great idea, and they provide huge advantages over networks owned
by Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable and other bigcos, but they
are not a substitute for federal network non-discrimination regulation.

Regrettably, Professor Crawford makes a mistake when she calls the
FCC Chair’s proposal a decision. If it is a decision, why fight? But the
decision has not been made. The fight is still on.

Furthermore, I am afraid that she’s misdirecting us with her claim that
municipal networks will provide “fair and equitable Internet access.”

There are some 25,000 municipalities in the US. Of these, 400 — 1.6%
— are building or planning municipal networks. Crawford says that
removing the state legal barriers to muni nets that exist in 20 states
will make muni nets more common, but even in the 30 states with no such
barriers muni nets are a rare exception.

Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that municipal networks won’t filter
content, offer fast-lane pay-to-play deals or violate network
neutrality in other ways. If BigCo X and City Hall make a deal, well,
y’know a deal’s a deal. It’d be delusional to think that Joe and Jill
Citizen could win against BigCo X in the age of Citizens United and

Even if your city had a network with a strong non-discrimination
policy, without federal legislation you would still be connecting to a
biased net. If your city’s network connects to Comcast (or Verizon or
AT&T orTime Warner Cable), and you need services or content from such
bigco networks, they’re still free to discriminate against you. Even if
you interact with the bigco’s Internet customers, without federal
non-discrimination regulations you face bias. (For example, if you are
part of a social network like Facebook that doesn’t have a deal with
(e.g.) Comcast, then Facebook could be slow-laned and your friends who
are Comcast’s customers could be “encouraged” to join networks that
Comcast does have deals with. If you publish an independent blog, write
your own apps or host your own services, fuggedaboudit.)

Professor Crawford is egregiously wrong when she says that muni nets
are, “…the only real long-term solution.” Structural separation —
making it illegal for network operators to have any financial interest
in the traffic they carry — would remove any motive for providers of
Internet connections to discriminate. Structural separation is the
“single payer rule” of networks, and the bigcos hate because it is
simple, enforceable and not subject to legal haggling and
re-definition. It’s the best real long term solution, except that in
the USA of Citizens United and McCutcheon oligopoly defines reality.

Failing structural separation, Title II, which governed our telephone
network when it was the greatest communications network in the world,
provides a framework for treating Internet access as critical
infrastructure so that Internet access providers would have public
duties that include non-discrimination. Even the current FCC Chair
leaves the door open to Title II, but if thinkers like Crawford give
up, the Chair certainly won’t push it on his own.

Failing that, we should require the FCC to implement temporary but
strong network neutrality rules that sunset when muni nets reach oh,
say, 10% of the United States population. This would be somewhat more
palatable to those who favor competition over regulation.

In summary, if we give up the fight for the open Internet before the
FCC makes its decision, we’re tools. And if we think that municipal
networks are a substitute for federal protection of the properties that
made the Internet miraculous, we’re fools.

[Before FCC Chair Wheeler announced his proposal to gut net neutrality
I gave a talk (transcript here) about many of the ideas above.]

The Wire Next Time
APRIL 27, 2014

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — 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 the
only 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.

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.

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, Calif., 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, N.C., and
Chattanooga, Tenn., 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.

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  1. Christopher Mitchell says:


    I think you are too negative on muni networks even as I agree that they alone do not solve the problem. But Susan is smart to put more of an emphasis on them as one of several solutions.

    First of all, we have more representation in City Hall than in states and certainly at the Federal Government. City Council and Mayoral elections are not nearly as dominated by commercial advertising and grassroots strategies can be far more effective. So even if we assume that muni nets are going to engage in limiting subscriber benefits, we have far more capacity to change that than at any other level of government. Local races often turn on a few hundred votes or even tens of votes.

    Structural separation is a good national solution and I hope to see it imposed as it is elegant, easily enforced, and would result in many better outcomes than the status quo.

    Finally, we are seeing far more interest from local governments to build these networks so the current number should be viewed as indicative of what is possible. The more we have community networks, small independent networks, etc, the more obvious it is how the massive cable and telephone companies are screwing us.

    This is a long term fight, not something that we can “win” on and go fishing. In over 100 years of electricity provisioning, the private companies are still trying to game the system constantly and harvest wealth from us.

  2. Melchior blausand (@blausand) says:

    Many many thanks from Cologne, Germany for your point.
    I’m currently fighting for regaining citizens control over our (top 3) municipal fibre net. Without your clear words i could easily have lost focus on net neutrality, which is of course an issue superiour to what i’m talking about very much these days: service level decentralisation.