City on solid ground in lawsuit
By Christopher Mitchell, originally published in the Monticello Times, July 31, 2008
At a time when most of the United States has slower, more expensive Internet connections than our overseas competitors, communities across the country have responded with initiatives to build the infrastructure of the 21st century. And then they have been sued.
Monticello is hardly the first community where an incumbent provider believes it alone should decide how that community connects to the world. Lafayette, a conservative city in Louisiana, spent several years in the courts before it could break ground on a publicly owned citywide network. Cajun culture did not allow for giving up on the project. Nice Minnesotans should do no less.
Monticello, too, must hold true to its citizens, who in last year’s referendum voted by almost 3 to 1 for a modern telecommunications network. That referendum wasn’t a request that the city do something; it was a mandate from the people to their government to build a fiber network to every home and business in the town.
Monticello is well within its rights to build a fiber-to-the-home network. But the construction cannot start until the litigation ends. TDS, a phone company headquartered in Madison, has filed a complaint with the laughable charge that the fiber network is neither a “utility” nor “public convenience.” Minnesota’s legislature has explicitly listed telecommunications and “cable television and related services” in its definition of public utilities. Everyone who has ever used the Internet knows it is a public convenience.
TDS cannot win this case, but it can stall Fibernet Monticello’s start-up to buy time for its own hasty upgrades and attempts to lock subscribers into long-term contracts. The City must stand strong during these trying times. The landslide network referendum was not merely about having a faster network. It was about a faster network featuring local services and accountability to the community.
For more than a century, publicly owned infrastructure has been key to the economic success of communities across the country. Thousands of towns were wired for electricity and phone service by municipalities and cooperatives because private companies would not invest in the infrastructure of the future. Citizens had to seize the initiative and in Monticello, they have done so again.
This is our modern predicament. In the vast majority of our communities, few of us have any meaningful choice in broadband or cable television because those who own the wires make the rules. If the cable company decides to block a program your business or household uses (without telling you), you are out of luck. Complaining to a remote corporate office is an exercise in frustration and often futility.
In contrast, community networks are just that, community networks. Windom, a small city in southwest Minnesota, knows the power of a community network. Their network ran a special fiber connection to a business just outside of town to provide services the incumbent could not, keeping important jobs in the community. In Vermont, Burlington’s schools are connected to the Internet with the fastest speeds available in the city because the community invested in a network far superior to that of existing providers. Without their community network, the schools would pay considerably more for far slower connections.
In Monticello, the public will soon own the wires and begin to benefit from the fruits of its due diligence and innovation. But first, it must hold strong against this meritless lawsuit. The network has been delayed, but these networks are almost always delayed. Monopolists understand the danger of competition and can be creative when throwing roadblocks before potential competitors. But Monticello will soon have a network that puts the community first and that is worth waiting for.
For more information, or to arrange an interview with Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Telecommunications As Commons Initiative, please contact Brooke Gullikson.
About ILSR and the New Rules Project: Since 1974, ILSR has worked with citizen groups, governments and private businesses in developing practices that extract the maximum value from local resources. A program of ILSR, the New Rules Project was designed to build community by supporting humanly scaled politics and economics. More at http://www.ilsr.org and http://www.newrules.org/