Broadband Justice

Sorry for the two-email day, everyone. This is important, though. Hope you can spare 10 minutes this evening to dig in. Thanks as always — Luke

Sorry for the two-email day, everyone. This is important, though. Hope you can spare 10 minutes this evening to dig in. Thanks as always — Luke

Nothing has shaped my life — the person I am, the art and music I love, the cultures that I feel part of — more than the Internet.

This might seem strange to those older than me and might seem pointlessly obvious to people younger than me, but I was exactly the right age at exactly the moment the world changed, that I was changed right along with it.

As a kid who grew up weird in a socially isolating place, I found my people online before I found them in real life. And as a kid with relatively severe (and undiagnosed) ADHD, I didn’t take much away from my classwork, but I spent hours and hours obsessively reading online.

It was fascinating to fumble around AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve. I felt like a hacker the first time I dialed in directly to an online bulletin board system (focused on videogame cheats, obviously). The game changed, though, with the world wide web.

And yes I was online just waiting — a 13-year-old connected by a 14.4 modem, but through old rural telephone lines that redlined at 2600 baud —  the moment the web flickered to life globally. Search engines didn’t really exist yet so I just searched around blindly, brainstorming magazines and record labels I liked and adding a .com to the name to see if they had a website. I tried sportsillustrated first, then epitaph and subpop. Once I was sure my parents were asleep, I obviously also tried playboy. Later that week I rolled my eyes in real time when I woke up to find my mom watching Katie Couric and Bryant Gumble ask their producers, “can you explain the Internet?

Nothing changed my young life quite like the Internet. MTV is a distant second, but that was culture on rails. You watched what the network wanted you to watch, in the order it wanted you to watch. The Internet was pure freedom.

And vitally, for my parents especially, it was practically free.

27 years later, the Internet is the center of almost everyone’s lives and it’s increasingly hard, especially for children, to keep up without it. Connectivity powers so much more of our lives than it used to even 10 years ago. The online world has gotten infinitely more interesting, nuanced and most internet connections have gotten a lot faster.

It’s also gotten less free.

By that I mean it’s gotten more expensive. (Did you think this was going to be a column about de-platforming or cancel culture? It’s not.)

The web was conceived in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee as an open and free information sharing platform. The platform is still technically free. Accessing the platform never really has been. And that’s fine. Infrastructure costs money to build and maintain and spending some money to access the internet is like spending a little bit of money each month to make sure water keeps coming out of your tap.

With media consolidation and industry collusion, though, private internet providers like Comcast and Centurylink have effective monopolies in their respective areas. In rural spaces where competition was never fierce, mom-and-pop ISPs have an even tighter grip on areas that are regarded as unprofitable.

We all know what monopolies tend to do: charge greater sums of money for increasingly inadequate products. In a world stripped of Net Neutrality, these dynamics also allow for scenarios like what recently happened just 60 miles from Spokane: a North Idaho internet service provider blocked access to Facebook and Twitter for all of his customers to protest those platforms banning Trump and other rightwing Twitter warriors.

This monopolistic playing field, which can only ever strive toward charging higher and higher prices for ever greater service mediocrity, is annoying for everyone, but it’s disproportionately hard on the poor.

After lots of cajoling, I was able to convince my parents to shell out the $5 (Prodigy) or $10 (Compuserve & AOL, but they made me cancel one before starting the other) per month for the services I was using at the dawn of the web. I don’t think any amount of begging would have gotten them to shell out $60 for even basic internet.

It’s hard to overstate how big a problem this is.

The more job-finding happens online, the more internet access is required for people’s mere survival. Especially in an economic downturn. The more education happens online, the further and further behind kids with spotty access fall.

In the pandemic context, the right has used this as an opportunity to blame the lockdown, but this learning gap in poor and rural communities started the minute the web launched, and has gotten worse and worse every day we haven’t — as a society — decided to make access for all a priority for all.

Stories like this have become causes célèbres on rural social media during the pandemic.

The places poorly served by the Internet aren’t just mountain tops and farm communities. It’s also urban neighborhoods where internet adoption often maps closely to historic redlining maps and current maps of community poverty.

The market, in short, is maximizing profit, and millions of people are being left behind.

But Luke! you exclaim. If not the market, then what?  Funny you should ask.

The place I grew up wasn’t electrified by market forces. My parents paid our electricity bill to Inland Power & Light, one of the community-owned energy cooperatives established with the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. Inland Power buys its energy from the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency established that same year.

The market didn’t electrify my childhood home. Our society did.

I would love to see cheap, accessible, public internet available across America. At the very least though, we need to at least allow non-market approaches to reach our poorest-served communities.

Even with Biden in office, there’s not much chance of a New New Deal creating sweeping new broadband infrastructure across the country all at once. It’s gonna take a lot of little steps and, pardon the cynicism, it’s going to need to happen at the state and then local level.

Luckily, an important first step is progressing through the Washington State legislature right now.

HB 1336, the Washington State Public Broadband act which has passed the state house and gets its first hearing at the Senate tomorrow, would allow ports and public utility districts to provide broadband internet within their service areas. It wouldn’t force PUDs to take this on, it would merely remove the hurdles that have historically prevented public entities from competing with private enterprise.

If this sounds like big-government liberalism, I guess it kinda is, but the idea has already been popular among certain conservative bodies. Arkansas passed a similar bill to Washington’s in February.

And while my preference would be to buy my internet the way I buy my water — from an entity that is funded and controlled by tax payers and puts the quality of service and the needs of its customers ahead of any profit motive — there’s new evidence that legislation that allows for public choice makes private providers behave better as well.

The only loser in this scenario is monopoly. And whether we’re talking about the board game or the tendency of unregulated capital to consolidate into fewer and fewer hands, I feel safe saying that everyone hates monopoly.

This isn’t a magic bullet, but it certainly adds a powerful new weapon to the arsenal. Deploying it to communities so they can get the access they need isn’t going to happen overnight.

That’s why we need to start now.


There’s a big initial Senate hearing tomorrow, here are a couple simple ways you can make your voice heard:

Alright, I’ll leave you alone for a few days at least. Have a good week everyone

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