Who’s Spinning the World Wide Web? A Look at Broadband Connectivity

I’ve always been curious about technology and how it works. Since embarking on my new position at Sierra Business Council managing the Gold Country Broadband Consortium, my curiosity around how we are connected to the World Wide Web has grown. I’ve been trying to uncover who owns all the wires connecting us to the Internet, where the various wires are that make up the World Wide Web, and how to gain high-speed access for unserved and underserved communities. The biggest spiders are the telecoms that own most of the fiber, coax cable, copper and the conduit to deploy it, but they’re not connecting everyone and turning off service for some. People can dig their own trench, pay an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to lay the conduit and the wire to connect them and the ISP will own the conduit and the wire. It’s a complex Web that not long ago was being built by only a few spiders.

COMM MG Blog NoConnection 2017 11Recently I discovered that AT&T is slowly turning off their old copper lines and migrating to a fiber and wireless network. During this migration process they are canceling Internet services in areas where it doesn’t pencil for them to maintain it. The only reason they’re not cancelling all copper services just yet is because the government by law requires they provide wireline (landline) phone service. In Illinois as well as other states they are attempting to back out of the mandates to run landline phones, but approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is necessary before they can pull phone service. As far back as 2014 AT&T and Verizon were canceling landline Internet and phone service leaving people to complain to the FCC. It seems their goal is to implement fiber to the door in some areas forcing others to rely on wireless for all AT&T telecommunication services, including high-speed Internet, or broadband.

AT&T is hard at work trying to get bills passed like SB 649 in California. These bills would allow them to put cellular antennae on any public building or utility pole without asking permission. The type of technology AT&T wants to deploy will allow them to broadcast broadband services, mobile phone services and home phone services wirelessly with more data then previous cellular antennae. AT&T has also been busy working on changing FCC’s definition of home phone service from wireline to wireless. Thanks to Jerry Brown SB 649 didn’t make it past his desk.

Broadband is the type of connection big telecom is currently not offering in many smaller communities and if they do decide to roll it out, they haven’t been advertising when, or where. It’s not a core utility, so they’re not required by the FCC to provide it. Broadband does gives access to the types of services that are being eroded in rural America, services like healthcare, education, emergency services, access to agriculture advances and economic development. There have been policies designed to promote making it a utility, but thus far they have been unsuccessful.

In 2015 the White House and the Broadband Opportunity Council authored a report that states broadband Internet has become an “essential infrastructure for communities”, that it is no longer just a convenience, but should be recognized as a “core utility” considered as essential as electricity and water. Regulations put in place between 2010 and 2015 helped remove the threats to Internet openness, protecting the consumer and preventing providers from deceiving customers, degrading content, or promoting content they favor and undermining content they don’t like. Under the current administration and the appointment of Ajit Pai as the new chair for the FCC the regulations put in place to protect consumers are being threatened. Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, is opposed to regulation and is looking to restore the “Internet Freedom” that benefits the providers, in part determining whether regulatory intervention is necessary in this market and giving more freedom to the ISPs. The Commissions’ theory is that by reducing the red tape these proposals will spur broadband deployment throughout the country, bringing better, faster Internet service to more Americans and boosting competition and choice in the broadband marketplace.

I think broadband should be considered a core utility and more heavily regulated by the FCC. One of the key responsibilities of the FCC is to maintain decency standards designed to protect the public good, or protect us from getting bitten by one of those spiders. Just the other day I went to the AT&T website and searched for service availability at my address, I found only home phone and mobile phone service, no more Internet. AT&T isn’t offering new customers Internet access in Kings Beach, Tahoe Vista, Olympic Valley and several other communities around Lake Tahoe and Truckee.

Many rural providers are filling the digital gap left by big telecom using grants and creative funding to lay down their own wires and purchase parts of the World Wide Web with the goal of creating an open access Web – a Web that anyone can access, not just the ones big telecom decides to provide access for. You can help SBC and the Gold Country Broadband Consortium improve access by taking the speed test survey here. By working together communities can build up a tolerance to the spider bites and get stronger in the process.