Thursday, March 10, 2005

Connectivity is a Right

Currently pending a hearing in both chambers of the Tennessee congress is a bill (HB 1403 in the house and SB 1760 in the Senate) which will make it unlawful for municipal governments to provide broadband internet access to their citizens. The goal here is to prevent municipalites from becoming potential competition for Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner, and the like, and though one could make an excellent case for major cities providing this service, I'm not even going to touch that one. Instead I'm going to tell you the story of the tiny town of Scottsburg, Indiana.

Just like numerous small towns all over Tennessee, Scottsburg hadn't had (or really needed) broadband Internet access until recently. It was a town that survived without email. If you needed to buy something you went to the local store, and if you wanted to talk to the mayor about a potholed road you just asked him about it when he said hello to you at the local cafe. The librarian would get books for you, and business agreements were transacted the old fashioned way, through the mail. Life in Scottsburg moved along just fine without Wi-Fi, Broadband, or anything of the sort, until life outside Scottsburg moved right along past it. Suddenly, businesses in Scottsburg were unable to compete with similar businesses in areas served by broadband. Mailing contracts and blueprints was simply too time consuming in a world where everyone is digital, and so, as is the case in this modern world, where there is demand, supply would arrive, right? Wrong. The town was simply too small, too far away from the primary broadband grids of Verizon and Comcast to be profitable. The town was in a catch 22. Without broadband the town couldn't grow, and would probably shrink as it lost jobs to connected areas, but until the town was larger broadband providers considered it a sinkhole for investment.

In steps the town's mayor, Bill Graham. Bill and the city council put together a plan to provide broadband Wi-Fi access to the entire community, beaming it right into the homes of every citizen with a computer. Businesses stayed, and things were looking up when suddenly, those very companies who'd showed no interest in Scottsburg before were up in arms. It wasn't long before lobbyists for the telecom industry were spouting all kinds of nonsense about unfair competition and misapropriation of tax dollars. How do I know that it's not unfair? Well, because these very companies are subsidized heavily by the federal government to expand access to communities just like Scottsburg. Hmm, that sounds like a misapropriation of federal tax dollars in itself. The bill they drafted to kill Scottsburg's municipal broadband project died in the Indiana legislature after Bill Graham told this same story in their house chamber.

Our own bill of this nature is even more subversive because it places a moratorium on services explicitly described as legal under Tennessee law. This bill is nothing but an attempt to protect the interests of massive, federally subsidized corporations from the horrible risk of people pulling together to serve themselves. Connectivity is the mortar between the bricks of society. The Roman empire was held together by a road network unlike any ever seen. The British fielded a navy that was unmatched by any in the world, and the United States has become this nation through various forms of connectivity from the railroad to the telegraph, the telephone to the Internet. To deny the right to provide this service to themselves to a city is to tell them the modern equivalent of no roads, no rail, no telephones.

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