A month or so ago, while waiting for my enchiladas at Veracuzana in Amherst, I committed a revolutionary act. I checked my email for free.
I don't do that at home, and I don't do that at work, but I did it there, sipping a cerveza.
Check it out: while my friend ordered, I pulled out my iPod Touch to see if there were any available WiFi links from the restaurant or neighboring businesses, only to find—lo and behold—that the town of Amherst was offering me up a connection for nothing. Being a member of the public with a device capable of getting my Internet connection wirelessly was enough for them. No passwords. No warnings. I checked my email, and with nothing new in my inbox, I could relax and enjoy my meal.
Like I said: revolutionary.
If you're walking around any place in the Valley other than Amherst, the lion's share of web connections you might have access to are metered: someone's making money off of the moments you spend surfing. The cognitive leap Amherst has made is seeing that access to the Web is something that could be considered a right, and that maybe the local government should even have a role in providing the utility. Analogy: instead of relying on local business owners to distribute cold water on a hot day, they installed water fountains.
On December 3, Comcast took the opposite approach. The corporation officially announced that they planned to buy a controlling share in NBCU, the conglomerated NBC broadcast and production companies, along with Universal Studios' film archives, production facilities and theme parks. Comcast is already the nation's largest cable and broadband Internet provider. This purchase would give the company a large stake in broadcast television, and more importantly, they would no longer simply be the purveyors of others' digital video content. Now they would also be in charge of making a large share of the shows and programming they distribute.
In a memo announcing the planned purchase, David L. Cohen, the executive vice president of Comcast, attempted to nip in the bud early concerns that the merger might threaten jobs, kill competition, violate antitrust laws or raise eyebrows at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by offering nine "Public Interest Commitments."
To Internet activist groups, Comcast's promises provided the kind of relief a bank robber offers when assuring the people he has at gunpoint that no one will get hurt as long as everyone behaves.
A report entitled "Comcast's Hollow 'Public Interest' Commitments" was published by Free Press, a national media reform advocacy group with headquarters in Florence. It stated that they, as well as Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America, "have reviewed Comcast's plan and found that none of the nine 'concessions' are meaningful commitments beyond what Comcast is already doing, is likely to do anyway, or is bound to do by law."
If the analogy holds, while Amherst is installing public water fountains, Comcast, tired of just bottling and distributing water, wants to buy up all of the water supply.
Of course, in a strictly capitalist sense, Comcast's growth and acquisition of other companies could be seen as evidence that the free market is working. By issuing the "Public Interest Commitments," though, it appears Comcast executives have shown that even they are aware that the services they provide are becoming more and more critical to how our democracy works. Unlike fast food or a line of designer clothing, Comcast's core product is vital for many.
In an interview with the Advocate last week, Josh Silver, the executive director of Free Press, said Comcast's list of "so-called commitments" is "irrelevant," an "incredibly lame" attempt to frame the multi-billion dollar acquisition as something other than a ploy for the rich to get richer with no advantage to the consumer. "Comcast is the biggest Internet provider in 39 states," Silver said. "They serve over 29 million homes. In 10 years everyone's going to get their cable TV through the Internet; this is simply a way for Comcast to take a huge swath of what we watch and put it behind a pay wall, so they can raise the rates they charge you and other cable companies."
Instead of having a history of looking out for the public welfare, Comcast has amassed ballooning wealth that has far exceeded the level of service it's offered in return. "In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example," Silver said, "over the past five years the cost for Comcast's expanded basic service has increased nearly 50 percent."
While Comcast has grown, the speed and quality of broadband offered in America has fallen from fourth best internationally to 22nd. Last year, as reported on CNNMoney.com, the Corporate Library, a corporate governance research firm, rated Comcast's CEO Brian Roberts as one of the five highest-paid, worst performers of the year. Though the company's stock ended 7 percent lower than it had started that year, Roberts still took home $40.8 million in compensation. In May of this year, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Comcast's lobbying budget in Washington had soared from half a million in 2001 to $12.5 million last year.
While Silver and his organization are hoping to get federal antitrust lawyers and legislators to put the brakes on the deal, he stresses that this is also very much a local issue. Increasingly businesses, small and large, are depending on the Internet, but "98 percent of the marketplace only has one or two choices for Internet providers," Silver said. "Cable television and Internet by its nature is a monopoly business model. You can't have multiple companies running their coaxial cable up and down the streets, so whoever owns the cables controls all competition on them."
Since the Internet is becoming a marketplace businesses everywhere depend on, Silver believes that it "can and should be mandated as a place where competition thrives by everyone having equal access," rather than all control residing with two or three corporations. States have been looking to Washington for regulation of Internet providers, but Silver believes the federal reluctance should be seen as an opportunity for states or even municipalities to set their own regulations for businesses who offer this vital service.
"Communities in Western Massachusetts should look forward," Silver said, "and create their own municipal high speed services. They'd become leaders in the country."
Matthew Crocker of Crocker Communications, the region's largest independent Internet service provider, shares Silver's vision.
Along with providing other telecommunication services, Crocker offers high-speed Internet via DSL for homes and business, which runs on the phone company's existing copper wires. "We resell or wholesale Verizon facilities," said Crocker. "We're a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC), which is a competitive phone company. The Telecom Act of 1996 created CLECs and set up the rules that Verizon has to work under to provide competitive access to their infrastructure." It's those rules that keep Crocker Communications in the Internet provider business.
In 2006, the Supreme Court upheld an FCC finding that cable companies didn't need to provide the same access to their coaxial system as telephone companies were forced to grant to their copper system. So for the time being, cable broadband is a market owned only by a very few companies, but fiber optic technologies offer "unlimited amounts of bandwidth and unlimited potential," Crocker said.
On a state level, the Massachusetts Broadband Institute has requested over $100 million in federal stimulus "to build a fiber 'middle mile' network throughout the western region of the state that, in addition to bringing broadband access to these communities, would provide direct connection to regional anchor institutions and critical community facilities," the press release from MBI stated.
While bringing fiber optics to the towns of Western Massachusetts would be a tremendous step forward, that alone wouldn't replace Comcast's stranglehold on Web access. The "middle mile" plan wouldn't bring the connectivity to homes and businesses or provide the support services currently offered.
"I'd encourage all the individual towns to expand upon the stuff that the state is doing," Crocker said, "because there's no money in expanding [fiber optic] service. This spreadsheet has been built a thousand times, and quite frankly, if it was profitable, it would have been done already by someone: us, Comcast, Verizon, whomever. But towns could get together and look at [providing Internet service] as an investment in the town, just like building a bridge or a school. [They could go] after either town bonding, state funding or USDA funding to build the town-level infrastructure, just as they might do to build a town water or sewer plant. Then companies like my own could help provide the services over those town-owned networks."
And local democratic legislators could then decide the rules that govern local access to the Internet, rather than a giant corporation.
"If you go back a few years, you'll read that everyone was going to [install public WiFi in their downtowns], but then nobody did it," said Kristopher J. Pacunas, Amherst's information technology director. "It was much more complex and expensive than anyone really thought. Ours only covers about a mile of downtown, but it's bigger than anything I know of in Massachusetts."
Initially, in 2006, Pacunas and his IT team installed two small WiFi hotspots in town as an experiment, without the intention of building anything more elaborate. A former select board member recommended to Pacunas that he reach out to the Office of Information Technology at UMass, though, which he did. The researchers at UMass had wanted to partner with a community on a project like this—setting up a network, collecting anonymous data, and measuring the connectivity and how much drop and loss occurred—but they'd been apprehensive about the level of organization and support they might get from a municipal IT department.
Together, though, UMass and the Amherst IT department took on the project, tackling how to get the funding for the downtown-wide system. Since Amherst was the only town planning such an installation, they attracted the interest of network developers who hoped to see the system tested. Cisco Systems donated technology, and the UMass IT Office won a grant for around $100,000. Some of the funding came through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the Department of Defense, and this caused concern initially from some selectmen.
"We put out those fires pretty quickly," Pacunas said, "when we explained this would be our equipment. We personally maintain it, and only we have access to it. UMass doesn't have the ability or permission."
The system went live late in 2007, with only a few months needed to install the 20 necessary devices. While many of the access points are mounted on streetlamps, they're also located on the sides of buildings, windowsills and rooftops. The installation required a survey team to judge the best placement and help put them in place, while Pacunas and his team configured the software. One of the features Pacunas is most proud of is that the public WiFi systems in buildings—the library and town hall—are also integrated with the one on the street. This means someone can start listening to a streaming radio station in one building, walk across town to the library, and never lose their connection.
At first, there were concerns that some might abuse the system by downloading video or playing bandwidth-intensive games, and Pacunas initially set limits on how long individuals could be connected and how much bandwidth they could use. Monitoring usage, though, he's found no such abuse and gradually the limitations have been dropped. At any one time, he says, there are roughly 100 people using WiFi, and he says the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.
When asked whether he had any idea who was using the system, he said he doesn't track that information, but he does see it being used by people around town all the time. At one point, he added, one of the WiFi hotspots needed to be taken down while the town was replacing sidewalks, and he quickly got calls from Ren's Mobil Station and others near the disabled hotspot wondering where their connectivity had gone.
It should be noted that that the Amherst IT department offers the free WiFi for occasional use only, and it is not intended as a dedicated connection to local businesses or residents. Further, Pacunas and his staff are not allowed to help users with connectivity problems or any other computer issues. These stipulations, however, don't appear to have dampened anyone's fun.
"When I look at other IT departments in communities around us," Pacunas said, "most don't have one of the key components it took for us to put a system together like this." While the grant funding was key, the even more important need was sufficient bandwidth.
"Comcast would not have allowed us to buy Internet bandwidth from them, and then, in their minds, essentially compete with them," he said. "I wouldn't have been able to get enough Internet bandwidth here in Amherst without the Five College Fiber Initiative."
In 2007, a 53-mile-long fiber optic network was installed by Five Colleges, Inc., a consortium that promotes the educational and cultural objectives of its members. It runs from Springfield and up through the communities where the schools are based. According to the Five Colleges Website, the network, dubbed "the Dark Fiber Ring," provides "much-needed infrastructure that is lacking in rural areas of this region." Further, the website states, "By including capacity far in excess of the needs of its members, Five Colleges can now allow towns along the network to tap into the extra 'dark fiber' at no cost beyond their own expenses of accessing the network."
Pacunas said, "What I'm able to do is buy bandwidth in Springfield through a company that doesn't offer Internet in Amherst, so I'm not competing with a local company, which would essentially be Comcast or Verizon."