Broadband as a public right of way

The public street

This essay was written in support of the Super Santa Barbara 2011 art exhibit on net neutrality

In the forty-one years since UC Santa Barbara became the third node on ARPANET (the government funded precursor to the Internet), generations of Santa Barbarans have been born into lifescapes increasingly dominated by “online time.” The growth of the Internet and of the World Wide Web has become a case study of government support and private initiative working in concert to support a wide range of digital opportunities. In the last several years these opportunities have expanded to the point where we can say that Internet access is now integral to our private and public lives, and to commercial interests and civil society alike.  As remarkable as the past four decades have been, the time has come to make some fundamental decisions about our digital future. In Santa Barbara, one of these decisions will be the construction of new broadband capabilities that will enable full participation in the public sphere and the digital economy.

A recent (2010) study of nationwide broadband services by the US Department of Commerce found that only about 30% of these services actually meet the minimum threshold of “broadband.” Most households paying for broadband in Santa Barbara County through COX, Comcast, Verizon, or satellite are, in fact, not getting anywhere near the minimum services that would count as broadband. And visitors from other nations (or, in my case, a son returning from college abroad) are often amused or appalled by how slow the Internet connections are in Santa Barbara. After pioneering the Internet in 1969, Santa Barbara now finds itself relegated to a digital backwater.

Because Santa Barbara County (and City) have only some tens of thousands households, commercial providers lack the incentives to upgrade services by bringing optical fiber to the home. At the same time, these service providers (which are more accurately described as content providers) argue strongly against the notion of community-run broadband. Advocates of community-run broadband are quick to note that their service is “content neutral.” This means that for-profit content providers can use community Internet to carry their own content. Even as their current, wire-based infrastructure becomes increasingly outmoded, local Internet providers—who refuse invest in optical fiber for Santa Barbara—continue to assert that their original investments need to be protected from future public investments.

The struggle for net neutrality hits the pavement in Santa Barbara as a struggle for community-run  broadband: our only certain road to high-speed broadband access for homes and businesses. One fundamental argument for community-run broadband services comes from the notion of “property-in-common” that communities still use to assert public ownership of rights of way for highways and waterways. The “digital highway” metaphor turns out to be a rather useful notion to support community-sponsored broadband.

In the US, roadways and waterways share a common feature of being held in public and maintained as a public good. Public goods and democratic principles walk hand in hand. To participate in a democracy requires an equal access to information and an egalitarian freedom of political action. Lewis Hyde, in his book Common as Air (2010) notes that when John Adams as a young adult acquired the right to vote (by inheriting property), he also acquired the obligation to help his township maintain a local bridge that was in need of repair. While the US federal government has a history of licensing rights to other forms of utility infrastructure (energy, telecommunications, railways, etc.), roadways and waterways have always been kept as a public trust.

From the start of the nation, roadways and waterways were viewed as key infrastructure for the common weal: for commerce, for travel, and for leisure. They are available for a wide range of uses by and for the public. (Yes, there are few short stretches of private highway in the US, but these are few, and historically have later reverted to state ownership.) The City of Santa Barbara owns and maintains all city streets for public use, and leases out rights of way to private utility companies. Many of the utilities that use the street as a right-of-way are not public. Privately owned electric and telephone poles and wires festoon the streets. Natural gas lines are buried under the streets. Water and sewer lines are operated by public companies. Public and private interests are gathered into a productive partnership to serve the people of Santa Barbara.

Throughout history, public streets and parks have also been used for civic celebrations, farmers markets, political demonstrations, and state spectacles. Streets create spaces for democratic action and for the voices of difference and dissent. Their publicness warrants them for these roles. Today, much of the civil discourse has moved from the park to the blogosphere. The means of dissent and redress are also digital. From Twitter to Wikileaks, the news comes from unexpected sources on the Internet. Today, civil society meets on Facebook more than at the coffee shop.

In its early days as a simple data link between research centers and then as a carrier of electronic mail, ARPANET may have resembled a telegraph system more than it did a city street. However, as the Internet emerged, the range of interests and activities it might carry expanded to the point where, today, it very much holds a place in the digital lifescapes of Santa Barbara as important and diverse as do the City streets and sidewalks for our physical lifestyles. Our daily lives are increasingly digital, and the lack of real, affordable broadband means that we are living on some narrow, digital back alley, instead of the bright throughway we would prefer for our lives.

The people of Santa Barbara deserve a broadband service that can warrant their trust as a platform for civil engagement, education, entertainment, and commerce. Santa Barbara residents and City staff joined together to respond to the Google plan to introduce gigabit Internet to a number of sample locations. The community helped City staff create its application. We are now waiting for Google to announce its first round of winners.  But win or lose, the future of net neutrality in Santa Barbara will be a brighter future when the City and County remember that broadband is more than a private utility: broadband is as much a public trust as is any city street.

Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by Ben Fredericson (xjrlokix) on Flickr

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