The Age of Big Internet

It takes a lot for “bad cable customer service” to make the news, yet Ryan Block’s infamous 2014 phone call with Comcast managed to do just that. Block, a tech journalist, had made the decision to switch cable providers and just needed the cable company to disconnect his service. As he quickly realized, the representative had other ideas. An excerpt of the call that Block posted on social media quickly went viral, drawing international headlines, millions of listens and eventually an official apology from Comcast.

The story’s popular appeal, perhaps, sprung from its ubiquity. Block’s interaction might have gotten more media attention than most customers’ experiences, but his frustration was far from unique: In one recent survey, no single sector ranked lower in consumer satisfaction.  So why, then, when hating one’s cable company has practically become a part of the American identity, do these companies continue to prosper?  

It can be all too easy to view this paradox as a passive acceptance of the status quo, a recognition that maddening customer service experiences and unexpected hidden fees are the price we pay for access to the digital world. But to do so would be to ignore the extent to which alternative visions at the community level are increasingly challenging the status quo.

This is an age of Big Internet, where a few corporations serve as gatekeepers to the digital realm, empowered by a hands-free free-market ideology that has created markets without any incentive to innovate or improve. But as the success of local alternatives to the present system shows, there is nothing accidental — or inevitable — about America’s internet woes.

From Big Cable to Big Internet

When Tom Wheeler took the helm of the Federal Communications Commission in 2013, many were skeptical of his background as a former cable industry lobbyist. And yet, by the time he left his position in 2017, he had established a record of fighting industry efforts to kill net neutrality and opposing cable mergers, earning the begrudging respect of many in the digital activism community. As open internet group Public Knowledge put it, “Rather than be the lapdog of industry some feared (or hoped for), Tom Wheeler proved himself to be the most ferocious watchdog for consumers and competition in nearly two decades.”

It’s a legacy that the cable companies didn’t exactly enjoy: “I think they consider me a traitor to their class,” joked Wheeler in an interview with the HPR. When he first went to work for the industry, he says, “We were the insurgents taking on the incumbents. The broadcasters were fighting us saying that there shouldn’t be television competition. Telephone companies were fighting us, saying they didn’t want another wire into the house.”  But over time, he increasingly saw the cable industry becoming what it had once fought against, as the once-upstart industry underwent waves of consolidation and conglomeration. 

In the 1990s alone, Tele-Communications Inc. and MediaOne folded into AT&T Broadband, which was eventually bought by Comcast; Time Warner purchased CableVision, Summit Communications and KSLCOM; Falcon, Avalon and Interlink were merged with Charter, and so on. By the end of the decade, only a few cable companies remained.

Consolidation during this time was made possible in part by a favorable regulatory environment, with industry behavior governed mostly by an act written in 1934. It was made possible in part by cultural realignments, including a new television culture springing from American cable networks’ coverage of the Gulf War and other current events. But more than any other factor, the rise of monopolistic markets was a conscious effort on the part of the industry itself. 

Beginning in 1997, in what cable executives later termed the industry’s “Summer of Love,” the major players left standing made handshake deals not to compete on the others’ territories. As a result, the executives’ collusion finished what market process had begun, eliminating almost all internal competition from the cable industry. “At the end of the day,” recalled Leo Hinrichs, a cable executive, “only five markets in the entire United States were still shared with other operators. And that completely changed our competitive profile.” 

A second shift, too, began taking place around this time: Thanks to the rise of the modem, cable supplanted phone lines as the predominant mode of internet connection. Just as Big Cable entrenched its monopoly, it became Big Internet as well.

An Immeasurable Problem

As a testament to the severity of America’s internet woes, it can be difficult to even quantify the scope of the problem. When the FCC tried in 2011 to map the lack of competition and broadband access that Americans faced, flawed methodology (a presumption that a single home in a census block having internet meaning every home did) and error-prone data collection (a reliance on data self-reported by the industry) marred its final product. As a result, the map it had spent $350 million creating was, in the eyes of many analysts, simply unsuitable for shaping policy.

Even with its flaws, however, the FCC’s mapping efforts revealed the dual nature of the digital divide. First, there are those without internet access, living in a region where networks are nonexistent or unaffordable. And second, there are those without good access to the internet, who may qualify as “connected” in national statistics, but hardly have speeds sufficient to handle the demands of the modern world.

Subsequent efforts to clean up FCC data have made these disparities more concrete: A 2017 report concluded that over 10.6 million US households have no access to high speed internet service, and 46.1 million households have just one company providing those speeds. And even that might be overselling it. The report used the FCC’s 2014 definition of “high speed” as over 25 megabits per second, and in 2020, Wheeler is skeptical of whether that benchmark still holds. “I think everybody thought about residential bandwidth in terms of Netflix and somebody surfing the web at the same time,” he said. “Well, now you have Mom and Dad working from home and two or three kids going to school … I think we probably have to redefine it to more like 100 megabits, minimum.” 

Exact scope notwithstanding, it is undeniable that the cable industry has failed to close the digital divide: The industry’s investments in infrastructure (either maintaining the current cable infrastructure or investing in the fiber infrastructure necessary to meet the demands of the future) are falling, its success in connecting rural regions has stalled and consumer prices have risen every year for the past two decades.

And yet, since 1991, industry revenue has nearly quintupled. Maintaining the digital divide has, for these companies, proved quite profitable. The seeming intractability of this problem is, in many ways, a sobering vindication of the notion that a market dominated by one company, by its very nature, has little incentive to align its interests with society. In the words of Rupert Murdoch, a “monopoly is a terrible thing — until you get one.” 

A New Vision

In 2009, Chattanooga, Tennessee launched an experiment. Fed up with years of mediocre service from Comcast, the town decided to try out a novel solution: taking matters into its own hands and delivering internet itself. Tasking EPB, the local publicly-chartered electric provider, with the job, it built out a fiber-optic network to rival Comcast’s cable network. Cable companies, of course, did their best to stop it, running ads on local TV stations and suing the city four times. But by summer 2009, the network had cleared the technical and legal barriers, and was ready for testing. EPB flipped the switch and connected the first 100 houses. 

It was a solution, proponents argued, made necessary by the lack of natural competition in the market. “There’s no way for private networks to create the levels of competition that we need,” Christopher Mitchell, a researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told the HPR. Market forces in the industry, he argues, naturally tend towards consolidation, and “as these things get bigger, they become unmanageable.” Local governments, on the other hand, are far more responsive to local needs than large ISPs, giving them, in his estimation, a unique ability to succeed where private markets have failed. 

Early reviews were enthusiastic, if cautious: the Chattanooga Times Free Press warned at the time that the “the real market test begins this fall as EPB begins charging for its new fiber optic services.” The results of the test soon became clear: Just four years later, those 100 households had grown to 53,000. 

Today, EPB’s customers enjoy some of the fastest internet speeds in the country for prices far lower than what the average American spends each month on cable. And these benefits extend far beyond the household: one study concluded that Chattanooga’s high speed internet was responsible for creating or saving thousands of local jobs. Indeed, thanks in part to its internet offerings, EPB is not just in the green, but, in fact, it is Chattanooga’s largest taxpayer. So is Chattanooga a model for the rest of the country? Is its success a preview of an age without Big Internet?

Some have cast doubt on this assertion, arguing that EPB’s financial success is an outlier and not the norm. However, such criticisms also inadvertently highlight the greatest benefit of public broadband: a city’s ability to do the things cable companies won’t, namely that which may not be immediately profitable, such as building infrastructure in low-density or poorer areas. If a city’s only mission is to operate like a business, municipal internet might be a nice idea where it works. But if a city has a duty to look after its citizens even where it is not immediately profitable, it just might be better than a business when it comes to delivering the essential prerequisite of digital society.

From a historical perspective, it is hardly a radical notion. As anyone who’s turned on a tap of city water or disposed of waste in municipal sewage systems can attest, America has a long history of putting the “public” in “public utility.” It was government investment that electrified much of America, government spending that laid many of the first copper phone lines, and government-funded research that created the foundation for the digital age. 

So why not, proponents ask, apply this mindset to the 21st century? Around the country, some 560 cities have heard the call and adopted some form of a municipal network. And, at least by some initial indications, it’s paying off: a 2018 report concluded that consumers pay less, often with more transparent pricing, for community-owned fiber networks as opposed to commercial ones.

Bridging the Divide

The idea is quickly gaining traction on the progressive left. As Will Luckman, an organizer with the Tech Action Working group of the NYC Democratic Socialists of America, sees it, the “cartel style” in which cable companies operate illustrates the danger of the profit motive at the heart of the present economic system. “Publicly owned and operated internet infrastructure is a labor issue, an environmental issue, and an economic and racial equity issue,” he told the HPR, “so it is definitely a socialist issue as well.” Left-wing politicians are taking note: in recent elections, candidates such as former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders backed some form of public internet in their platforms.

Leading Republicans have been doing their best to keep it a partisan issue — in a 2015 letter, six Republican senators criticized the FCC for “promoting government-owned networks at the possible expense of private sector broadband providers.” But at the local level, a different story may be playing out: “The people that we talk to that vote for Republicans are very supportive of community solutions to expand broadband access,” said Mitchell, “because they’ve seen the failure of the markets.” 

In 2010, Arkansas, at the urging of cable companies and national right-wing think tanks, banned the development of such solutions. But even as national Republicans marched onward in their opposition to municipal broadband, the digital divide proved stubborn, and Arkansas Republicans slowly began to paint a different picture. The ban, argued the legislature’s female Republican caucus in 2019, meant that “federal dollars are left on the table. That is our tax money, and it should come home to Arkansas.”

In 2019, a Republican-led effort overturned the ban, making it easier for some municipalities to create their own network. And while the break with national Republicans attracted headlines, it was less of an exception than it might seem: According to an analysis that Mitchell’s group conducted, the majority of municipal networks have been built in regions that vote Republican. On a purely economic level, this is hardly surprising. Through their tendency to disproportionately neglect lower-income and more rural regions, ISPs have brought this realignment upon themselves — the less abstract digital inequality is, the less partisan it seems to fix it.

And so, with municipal broadband holding the potential to bridge both digital and politician divides, is the age of Big Internet nearing its end? Even with this, a reckoning is far from guaranteed. Telecom interests, as some of the biggest spenders when it comes to lobbying, have traditionally held immense sway within the halls of power. Moreover, the notion of an expansion of government ownership may prove a step too far for many ideological conservatives. And, of course, taking on the ISPs is hardly a digital panacea in and of itself. Monopolistic digital services (Amazon and Facebook, just to name a few) are just as dangerous even if the pipe they flow through is community-owned, and increased community control of the end-user connection has the potential to be undermined by privatization of more fundamental parts of the internet’s physical and digital infrastructure. 

And yet, if the cracks it has managed to create in the facade of Big Internet are any indication, municipal broadband can be an essential first step. Big Internet is predicated on the notion that an essential right can be delivered as a market commodity — a story that, for all but a fortunate few, has failed. Treating the internet as a public utility provides a pathway toward a different future. America just may be frustrated enough to follow it.

Image Credit: “world map technology style against fiber optic background” by LEO PENG is in the public domain

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