Issue 3 / Justice

December 01, 2017
A photo of a bunch of router cables.

Photo by ElasticComputeFarm from Pixabay.

The New Sewer Socialists

Evan Malmgren

A blue-collar manufacturing town in southern Appalachia offers a roadmap for reclaiming the internet’s utopian potential.

A lazy sprawl of brick and mortar straddling the Tennessee River in orange and beige: at first glance one could be forgiven for mistaking Chattanooga for any number of landlocked manufacturing towns. Like many of its postindustrial relatives, this city of 174,000 is in the midst of a protracted and irreversible economic transition. In the past two years alone, Dupont, Alstom, and MetalTek all shut down manufacturing plants that once employed thousands of people across the surrounding Hamilton County, where economic anxiety runs high and Trump won by sixteen points.

But Chattanooga doesn’t quite fit the tired narrative evoked in the president’s grim portrait of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” This is a city with a plan.

Situated in the heart of the Great Appalachian Valley, Chattanooga is widely known by a silicon-tinged moniker that sounds a bit more Santa Clara: “Gig City,” a reference to “the Gig,” the city’s municipally owned fiber-optic network. Funded in part by a $111 million federal stimulus grant and maintained by the Electric Power Board (EPB), Chattanooga’s public electric utility, the Gig’s ambitions feel more collectivist—and more fundamental—than the superficial “disruption” on offer from private-sector techno-utopians.

In 2010, the Gig became the first network in the country to offer one gigabit-per-second (Gbps) data speeds across its entire service area, which now top out at a mind-bending ten Gbps. (At ten Gbps, you can download a two-hour movie in about three seconds.) These speeds are even more impressive because they are symmetrical, which means downloading is as fast as uploading. Since it was laid across Chattanooga’s power grid, fiber-to-home internet service has been available at every home and business in the municipality for the past seven years.

This is an astounding result in the United States, where service is spotty and the average connection speed was just below nineteen megabits-per-second (Mbps) at the start of 2017—lower than the federal definition of broadband.” And Chattanooga has certainly reaped the rewards, nurturing its newfound status as a regional tech hub with numerous conventions and noteworthy startups like Skuid, a cloud-based UX platform, and Bellhops, an on-demand moving company. One economist estimated that the fiber infrastructure had generated as many as 5,200 jobs and as much as $1.3 billion in net economic and social benefits in its first five years of operation.

Another way the city has benefitted is through something called the “smart grid.” Since the EPB doubles as Chattanooga’s electric utility, and because their fiber-optic network was built on top of a pre-existing power grid, the company has been able to monitor their electrical system in real time, greatly reducing the impact of outages by rerouting power almost instantaneously. The EPB estimates that the “smart grid” has decreased the duration of outage minutes by half, resulting in a citywide economic benefit of about $50 million per year. This capability will become increasingly important as climate change accelerates the frequency of outages caused by severe weather events.

Also, while other utilities need to deploy technicians in order to inspect site-specific meters, Chattanooga’s “smart grid” reads all meters every fifteen minutes, saving money for the EPB and greatly improving the reliability of their service. As a result, J.Ed. Marston, the vice president of marketing at the EPB, notes that the fiber network benefits everyone who uses electricity in Chattanooga—not just those who buy internet.

Closing the Digital Divide

The success of Chattanooga’s municipal network is often measured in economic terms. But it has also brought substantial benefits in people’s quality of life. From helping us file taxes and sign up for healthcare benefits, to enabling us to communicate and engage with mass media, the internet is an increasingly central force in our social, economic, and civic life.

It is hardly necessary to state the value of a stable internet connection in 2017. Differing levels of access do not merely reflect pre-existing inequalities in material wealth—they reinforce them.

If you can’t use the internet to access a government service, fill out a job application, or email your grandkids—or if you need to take hours out of your day to go to a library to perform these tasks on a public computer—it’s going to set you even further behind people with easy access. Marston tells me that, as a publicly owned company, the EPB has an imperative to address economic inequality as it manifests through this divide. “As a municipal utility,” he says, “our mission is to enhance the quality of life and local economy for our entire community.”

To this end, the EPB offers a subsidized unlimited data plan called Netbridge to families on the National School Lunch Program. Since the “smart grid” connects to every home in Chattanooga, the plan is available throughout the utility’s entire service area, which Marston says has “dramatically raised the bar on people’s expectations of what the internet should be.”

This point is significant. In other parts of the country, the “digital divide”—a structural gap between those who have ready access to the internet and those who do not—is fueled in part by a practice known as “digital redlining,” where internet service providers (ISPs) refuse to invest in low-income areas because of their poor capital returns.

In many of Cleveland’s poorest census blocks, for example, one survey recently found that AT&T only offered downstream speeds of three Mbps or less. (The lowest rates on offer from the EPB are more than thirty times faster.) Rather than a simple binary division between those who can get online and those who can’t, the digital divide operates as a tiered gradient, where quality and ease of access are unevenly distributed.

In practical terms, this means that low-income residents are often required to pay full price for an internet connection that can barely load a modern web page. For this reason, Angela Siefer of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) tells me, “access to affordable broadband is not just a rural issue, but an urban issue as well.”

As demonstrated by Chattanooga’s Gig, one way to address that issue is by handing internet service off to public utilities, which are bound to serve the public good rather than profit-hungry shareholders. But accessible infrastructure alone isn’t enough. For people to take advantage of affordable broadband, they also need a base level of technical literacy, as well as an understanding of what they can do with the internet. Together, these are the building blocks of “digital equity,” a condition that the NDIA defines as one in which “all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy.”

The digital divide persists in Chattanooga thanks to a structural gap in technical literacy, which is made even more apparent by the city’s booming tech industry. But the presence of a public broadband utility—which treats internet service the way other municipalities treat gas, water, and electricity—has radically altered the way local politicians and many ordinary Chattanoogans conceive of the internet. They have come to think of it as a right rather than a luxury.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has fully embraced the Gig since taking office in 2013, and he clearly sees deeper potential beyond the realm of techie startups. Offering a soft echo of Michael Harrington, he tells me that “the fiber network gave us a platform to talk about whether digital technology is going to exacerbate or curb inequality,” adding that, although the network leaves no house untouched, “that doesn’t mean that everything is equitable.”

Arguing that “even $5 is too much [for an internet connection] if you have no idea what you’re doing with your computer,” Berke has used the Gig as a starting point to push a comprehensive digital equity agenda. This includes initiatives like Tech Goes Home Chattanooga, a publicly funded nonprofit that provides free tech literacy training, heavily subsidized Chromebooks, and education about how to sign up for reduced-cost internet plans—important considerations in a city with a poverty rate of 22.6 percent.

Internet Access as a Human Right

Chattanooga isn’t the only city to push for universal access to affordable high-speed broadband, but such schemes more often take the form of public-private partnerships—and are usually met with mixed results. For example, in 2008, Verizon signed a deal with New York City that gave the telecom giant a citywide cable franchise on the condition that they “pass all households” with their fiber-to-premise FiOS network by 2014.

The city wanted FiOS to be available in every home. But Verizon quickly fell back on old redlining habits, arguing that they had only agreed to run their network by every household, not to physically connect them. New York is currently suing the company, claiming a breach of contract for Verizon’s failure to offer fiber-optic service to nearly a third of the city’s 3.1 million households, the majority of them in working-class neighborhoods.

Google Fiber is another popular option for cities seeking a high-speed fiber-to-premise network. Its pilot even launched the same year as Chattanooga’s municipal network, and in a similar town: Kansas City. But while Gig City is running strong after seven years, Google Fiber continues to send out unexplained cancellation emails in Kansas City, and has failed to offer fiber connections throughout its entire service area.

One significant advantage that the EPB had over these public-private partnerships was a pre-existing electrical grid. In addition to creating compounded benefits through the efficiency of the “smart grid,” this infrastructure gave the utility a reason, and a roadmap, to connect an entire service area.

But even more importantly, the EPB is a democratically regulated public provider that treats internet service as a basic right. As a municipally owned utility, it can act in the interests of its community and not simply to enrich its investors. This approach is far more in line with the FCC’s own (under-enforced) classification of broadband as a public utility, as well as the UN’s declaration that internet access constitutes a human right.

Frankly, it’s difficult to see how a serious effort at digital equity can align with a deployment strategy driven by profit. In public-private partnerships, the public sector is inevitably the junior partner, and social needs take a back seat to the corporate drive to extract as much wealth as possible. If internet access is to be treated as a basic right and regulated as a public utility, the public sector will need to build and manage the infrastructure.

The Empire Strikes Back

Chattanooga’s municipal network has attracted lots of well-funded resistance. When the FCC gave the city the green light to expand their network beyond their municipality—a popular move in the surrounding area, especially given that broadband access was not available to one in eight Tennessee residents in late 2016—AT&T lawyers hit back, eventually winning a federal court ruling that restricts the EPB to its current service area.

“I find that infuriating,” Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance told the magazine Next City. “Chattanooga has not only one of the best networks in the nation, but arguably one of the best on Earth and the state legislature is prohibiting them from serving people just outside of their city border.” Even more recently, the Tennessee state legislature passed the Broadband Accessibility Act, effectively a $45 million tax break for private telecoms like Comcast.

Arguments against Chattanooga’s municipal network and others like it usually take up a familiar anti-government line of attack. Critics often point to the high cost of building new broadband infrastructure, which Chattanooga partly covered with a hefty federal stimulus grant. They further argue that this level of state intervention hurts competition in the internet market, and could eventually result in poorly run public monopolies.

But there’s reason to believe that this pushback has more to do with the interests of the telecom lobby than with good-faith concerns about the efficiency of Chattanooga’s experiment. With a $330 million price tag, the Gig was certainly expensive to build—but it has yielded significant returns on that investment. According to one study, the “smart grid” generates up to $67 million per year in combined revenues and savings. And its maintenance and operation are entirely funded by subscription fees, requiring no tax funding. The utility is solidly in the black, with a 57 percent market penetration that far surpasses initial targets and continues to grow.

Rather than focus on the instructive lessons from success stories like Chattanooga, free-market critics prefer to frighten city governments with tales of municipal broadband gone awry, like the $39 million flop in Provo, Utah, which was bought by Google Fiber after years of mismanagement. But it’s hard to take this concern seriously when failed municipal projects are exactly what the private sector wants. The death of Provo’s municipal project simply became another investment opportunity for Google, while a success could have locked predatory telecoms out of the local market.

Crushing the Competition

The irony of the corporate argument against municipal broadband is that private providers hate competition. Throughout the United States, privatized internet markets have led to the exact monopolistic conditions that free-market hawks rail against: a 2016 FCC report found that only one or zero providers offered services qualifying for the federal definition of broadband in over half of the developed census blocks in the United States. Less than half of the country’s developed census blocks have access to 100 Mbps service, and less than a quarter of those have more than one provider offering service at those speeds.

The resulting lack of competition leads to inflated prices, little incentive to modernize infrastructure, and shoddy service for poorer areas. Stagnation, inefficiency, and unfair consolidation are produced by private telecoms like Comcast, not public utilities like the EPB.

Confronted with the oft-repeated argument that a publicly owned fiber network smothers competition and hurts consumers, Mayor Berke is uncharacteristically blunt: “I’ve seen no evidence of that.” Indeed, Chattanooga’s internet market is one of the most competitive in the country. The EPB isn’t the city’s only internet provider—the utility competes against four private ISPs, two of which also offer broadband-speed internet at a fraction of the national average. But in head-to-head competition, the EPB dominates. Its market share is larger than its four private counterparts combined.

Pressure from the EPB has even pushed competitors to offer fairer prices to defend their dwindling market shares. In the past two years, Comcast, AT&T, and Mobile Beacon have all targeted low-income Chattanoogans with data plans that cost around $10 per month for people living on certain forms of government assistance. These are even cheaper than the EPB’s subsidized Netbridge plan, which costs $26.99—the lowest price allowed under a Tennessee law that establishes price floors for municipal cable systems.

This kind of competitive outcome—exactly the result that critics warned the EPB would undermine—is enabled by public intervention in broadband infrastructure. In fact, the only force preventing Chattanooga’s internet costs from dropping even further is regressive, pro-corporate legislation.

Far from killing competition, the EPB competes with great success against private ISPs—and that’s exactly what scares them. If the utility were too overburdened by bureaucracy to operate successfully, there would be no need for corporate lobbyists to push for state laws that hamstring the company’s growth.

Demand for EPB service exists outside the utility’s municipal area precisely because it would provide a superior product to what is currently on offer. Absent the public pressure provided by the utility, Chattanooga’s internet market would likely tend towards monopoly, as it has in similar regions throughout the country.

Municipal Momentum

Southeastern Tennessee is hardly a bastion of big government, making Chattanooga a curious leader in the world of municipal broadband. But the Gig remains deeply popular in the city and its surrounding area, where digital equity has become a remarkably bipartisan issue thanks to support from local Republicans like Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger. Given the chance to experience municipal broadband firsthand, people see it as less of a partisan issue and more one of common sense. It simply works.

The Gig also offers a proof-of-concept for communities contemplating publicly operated broadband outside of Chattanooga, where attitudes towards municipal fiber are evolving quickly. Just two years ago, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant was ridiculed for proposing a $5 million pilot program in her city. But today, municipal projects are being proposed in major urban centers like San Francisco and Minneapolis.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance counts more than 500 public networks of some kind, including communities in twenty-four states that offer public connections of at least 1 Gbps. And public broadband is widely popular: a recent Pew Research survey found that 70 percent of the public believes that local governments should be able to build their own broadband networks, including 67 percent of Republicans. This all but proves that state legislators are serving the telecom lobby rather than their actual constituents.

It is tempting to envision a national scheme to lay fiber-optic cable across the country’s electrical grids, akin to FDR’s ambitious Rural Electrification Act. At a time when the Republicans enjoy unified control of the federal government, however, such an effort is unlikely to succeed: Trump’s FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, is a close ally of the telecom industry who has used his office to pursue a decidedly pro-corporate agenda. In addition to going after net neutrality rules, he has led a push to significantly reduce the federal definition of broadband, signaling complacency with an uneven distribution of internet access that disproportionately impacts working-class communities and people of color. Meanwhile, telecom lobbyists have successfully passed laws that limit the expansion of public broadband in more than twenty states, including Tennessee.

With the political climate so hostile to public broadband at the national and state level, focusing on local utilities seems like a promising path forward. An increasing number of cities are calling for resistance to Trump’s agenda. Municipal broadband offers one way for smaller governments to reclaim their autonomy.

Reclaiming the Digital Commons

The quality, reliability, and affordability of someone’s connection are all essential to determining how they can engage with the internet—and what kind of stake they will have in the world it helps create. As long as the digital divide is bound to inequalities in material wealth, the internet will remain subservient to capital and continue to reproduce old hierarchies of power.

That’s why achieving digital equity is a political project, rather than a purely technological one. And, as with all political projects, there are a range of possible outcomes. Mayor Berke understands this as well as anyone. Conceding that Chattanooga’s exact model might not be a perfect fit everywhere, he nonetheless insists that local governments can’t afford to wait. “There has to be a strategy that actually gets you there,” he says.

Kelly McCarthy, program director of Tech Goes Home Chattanooga, cautions that tackling the digital divide is “not just a problem where we can suddenly give everybody internet access and it will be solved.” Indeed, a robust digital justice agenda would also need to include tech literacy education, subsidized hardware, and offline services to ensure that people can get connected in a way that is truly equitable.

But municipal broadband is a strong start: by handing the keys to public bodies, we empower them to distribute access in a more democratic manner. Bringing the infrastructure of the internet under public control lays the groundwork for pursuing a broader vision of digital justice. And at a time when corporations increasingly dominate fundamental resources like water, reclaiming common goods sends a powerful message to the private sector.

Until digital equity becomes an urgent matter of public policy, the digital divide isn’t going anywhere.

Evan Malmgren is a researcher and fact-checker in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Jacobin, Dissent, and The Nation.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 3, "Justice". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.