Agency and Structure at Work in Municipal Wireless Broadband Adoption


Community owned and operated wireless broadband is one of the fronts in a widespread battle over the future what Benkler (2006) considers the ‘institutional ecology’ of the Internet, or all of the social, political, and economic constitutive choices faced by society as it grapples with the implications of the network.  In essence, the series of choices and decisions will determine the extent of agency and constraint, as described by Croteau, Hoynes, and Milan (2012), provided or imposed over various public and private stakeholders in institutional ecology of the network.  The future of municipal wireless broadband represents one such choice faced by society with important implications for the future of network access.

According to the FCC (2011), “broadband is a foundation
for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life” (p. xi).  Yet, the FCC (2011) also notes that more than 100 million Americans lack broadband access at home, roughly a third of the country.  Benkler (2006) describes the problem as a last mile problem, meaning the last mile to the home is often the most expensive mile for infrastructure providers, particularly in rural areas, or urban areas that lack an economically attractive demographic for private industry.  Moreover, Benkler (2006) advocates the buildout of municipal wireless broadband because of the positive externalities that municipalities have to gain, such as increased economic growth, improved healthcare, or lower unemployment.  Indeed, Ferree (2011), investigated the impact of broadband adoption on employment rates and unemployment, finding that  “broadband adoption has a positive impact on a county’s employment growth rate and a negative impact on a county’s unemployment rate” (p. 34).  In addition, Kolko (2006) found significant evidence of a persistent digital divide, particularly in low-income urban areas.  Moreover, Kolko’s (2006) study suggested strong evidence that increased urban broadband use translated to users seeking healthcare information online.  Thus, municipal wireless broadband can be a particularly attractive solution for both urban and rural areas suffering from the digital divide, and can create positive externalities for municipalities seeking to improve their communities.  What stands in the way?

In The National Broadband Plan, the FCC (2011) acknowledges the challenge in municipal broadband wireless deployments as a policy issue, resolving to “clarify the congressional mandate allowing state and local entities to provide broadband in their communities and do so in ways that use public resources more effectively” (p. xii).   The congressional mandate referenced is none other than the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which states that “no State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service” (United States. Congress., 1996, Section 253).  Despite the clarity of the law, municipalities seeking to implement municipal broadband networks, have faced intense political and legal challenges from telecommunications industry actors.  The city of Abilene, Texas sought to implement a broadband network, however was prevented from doing so, given Southwestern Bell “persuaded the Texas legislature to pass a law that prohibited local governments from providing high-speed Internet access” (Benkler, 2006, p. 407).  After appeal, the Federal Appeals Court in Washington D.C. ruled that ‘any’ did not mean municipalities and the city was prevented from moving forward (Benkler, 2006).  This is but one example of the constraints faced by municipalities in seeking the derive the positive externalities of broadband by implementing their own network in the face of tension from corporate interests.

Of course, telecommunications corporations do not want to see the rise of municipal broadband because of the challenge to their oligopoly.  Therefore, there are intense efforts at lobbying underway.  Comcast Corporation, one of the largest broadband providers in the nation, is also one of the nations largest lobbying spenders, spending nearly $20M in 2011 alone (OpenSecrets.org, 2012).  Moreover, Comcast sits on the Communications and Technology Board of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative, free market bill mill that produces draft bills for federal and state legislators (sourcewatch.org, 2012).  ALEC’s position on municipal broadband favors the telecommunication’s industry arguing that municipal broadband networks could negatively affect free markets and “erode consumer choice by making markets less attractive to competition because of the government’s expanded role as a service provider (ALEC, 2012, p. 1).  However, Sadowski and De Pender (2009) found that the presence of municipal broadband actually increased competition.  It appears to this author that the arguments against municipal broadband by telecommunications providers are more oriented towards preserving their interests rather than serving the public interest, which is exactly what a publicly-owned corporation should do.  In fact, the reason the digital divide exists, is because telecommunications providers have serviced the segment of the population that can afford broadband, a behavior that is expected.  However, their desire to constrain the agency of municipalities that are not being served is both self-serving and an obstruction of social and economic progress.

References

ALEC. (2012). Communications and Technology  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from http://www.alec.org/task-forces/telecommunications-and-information-technology/

Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks : how social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press.

Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., & Milan, S. (2012). Media/society : industries, images, and audiences (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.

FCC. (2011). Connecting American: The National Broadband Plan.  Washington DC: FCC Retrieved from http://download.broadband.gov/plan/national-broadband-plan.pdf.

Ferree, P. E. (2011). The effect of broadband Internet adoption on local labor markets. Master Public Policy in Public Policy, Georgetown University, Georgetown. Retrieved from https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/553724/ferreePaul.pdf?sequence=1

Kolko, J. (2006). Why should cities provide wireless broadband access? Paper presented at the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2104394

OpenSecrets.org. (2012). Lobbying Spending Database: Top Spenders  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php?showYear=2011&indexType=s

Sadowski, B. M., & De Pender, M. (2009). Do municipal broadband networks foster network competition?: Case study evidence from the Netherlands. Paper presented at the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1999842

sourcewatch.org. (2012). Comcast Corporation – SourceWatch  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Comcast

United States. Congress. (1996). Telecommunications Act of 1996. (0160534887). Washington DC: U.S. G.P.O. : For sale by the U.S. G.P.O., Supt. of Docs., Congressional Sales Office Retrieved from http://transition.fcc.gov/Reports/tcom1996.pdf.