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Community Broadband Networks’ Christopher Mitchell says how mobilization campaigns pushed the FCC to classify the Internet as a public utility, but more effort is needed to reform providers’ monopoly control

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. Net neutrality rules are now official, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In a three-to-two vote along party lines, the FCC acted rules to ensure that internet service providers treat all legal content equally. That means if you’re streaming a movie off of Netflix or updating your Twitter account, internet service providers cannot slow down your connection speed, dependent on your content. Now joining us to unpack all of this is Christopher Mitchell. He is the director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Thanks for joining us, Chris. CHRISTOPHER MITCHELL, DIR., COMMUNITY BROADBAND NETWORKS, ILSR: Thank you for having me on the show. DESVARIEUX: So, Chris, this sounds more like a corporate battle between the likes of internet service providers like Comcast and websites like Netflix. So if you’re a consumer and you’re hearing this story, why should you even be concerned about this? MITCHELL: Well, I actually hope that a lot of people have already heard about it, because over 4 million Americans contacted the Federal Communications Commission about it. The concern is that if we do not have these kinds of rules, the big internet service providers like Comcast or AT&T would be able to throttle our connections or encourage us to go to MSNBC rather than CNN, or to be able to nudge us, or even block sites, potentially, although few thought that was a strong possibility in the near future. So this is about making sure the internet remains as free and open as it has been in the past. DESVARIEUX: So let’s look at some of the counterpoints. One is that these rules are going to inevitably turned toward sort of a usage-based pricing system, where you’re going to have these internet service providers like Comcast or Verizon not happy about this Title II classification and essentially going to say, you know what? We still want to see the same level of profits that we’ve been seeing, maybe even more. And inevitably they’re going to turn to consumers and say, use a model similar to mobile phones: you pay depending on your usage. And the FCC has said that they’re in favor of something like that. So what would be your response to that argument? MITCHELL: Well, I think the FCC has had some comments from individual commissioners, but I don’t know that as a whole they’ve said that they’re in favor of what’s sometimes called usage-based billing or metering. I also don’t think that the net neutrality debate is–really makes that more or less likely. The usage-based billing is basically a way for forcing people like us, normal people, to pay more for internet access. And I think that’s an appropriate use. I think if you look at the highest-quality services in the United States, from cities that have built their own networks, from Google, from small private companies like Sonic in California, there’s a lot of providers that are providing the best connections in America today. They’re not seeing any need to charge for usage-based pricing. And for anyone who wants to tie this back into network neutrality, I don’t think it’s a good argument to say that because we’ve stopped these big monopolies from abusing us in one way, they’re more likely to abuse us in a different way. I feel like we have to deal with all of those issues and try to make sure that we simply aren’t stuck with monopolies, rather than figuring out the best way to let them to abuse us. DESVARIEUX: Okay. Another counterpoint is that this neutrality rule is actually going to be a disincentive for more competition. The argument sort of goes that if you’re Netflix, now that you don’t have to pay extra to get your content out there, you’re not going to seek alternatives to Comcast and Verizon, and essentially that it’s not going to create competition in the marketplace. What do you say to that? MITCHELL: Well, I think that companies like Netflix shouldn’t have an extra bar. You know, Netflix shouldn’t be tasked with making sure that I have good internet access my home. I should be the one that is able to have a high-quality internet access and use it however I want. If I want to use a company like Netflix, that’s excellent, and I shouldn’t be having to fight with my ISP in order to do that. But ultimately we do have a problem with people having a real choice, because in this country we have neither really great regulation nor competition. I think we’ve just taken a step to having better regulation. But we also like to have a real choice in providers to make sure that we have great access and that we don’t have a provider that can abuse us. But it’s not Netflix’s job to fix the internet. Their job is to provide high-quality video service. And I hope that they’re able to focus on that. DESVARIEUX: I’m glad that you mentioned that in this country we don’t have greater access. Can you speak to other models, other countries that have kind of been able to balance this, where you’re able to provide affordable internet and reliable internet as well? MITCHELL: Yes. We’ve seen that in many cases the United States is falling behind. I think often there’s various comparisons that can be done. But if you look at a major U.S. city and you want to compare it to major rivals in Europe or in Southeast Asia, there’s a real problem. We do not have the same level of high-capacity connections at affordable prices. In places like Southeast Asia, they’ve often done it because they have a level of government interference in the private sector or government cooperation in the private sector, depending on your point of reference. The government tells private companies what to do in a number of cases, and they’re more likely to do it, or they require them to. That’s not a system we have here in the United States, for better and for worse, in many ways. In Europe you have a system where there’s regulators that force incumbents, the big telephone companies, to share their lines. So, for instance, if every company still had access to AT&T’s lines, where you could get service from multiple providers just by them using the AT&T lines already in the ground. That’s something that has worked in Europe. We tried that here and it didn’t go very far. And there’s a number of people who’d like to go back to that. But the situation in Washington, D.C., is that the enormous power of the cable and telephone companies, they set a certain political reality. So I think we can learn some things from other countries, but we can’t just copy them wholesale and expect that we’re going to have the same results. DESVARIEUX: Is there a way to challenge those political realities that you mentioned? MITCHELL: Well, we did it on network neutrality, I mean, as well as on municipal networks, the two big decisions that were made yesterday. In both those cases, over the previous years people said there was no way we’d be able to beat the cable and telephone companies. You know, 4 million Americans, like I said, weighed in. We had all kinds of big companies, small companies coming together that said, we don’t want the future of the internet to be determined by AT&T and Verizon and those companies. So, by building these sorts of coalitions, and I think doing really high-quality organizing that’s been done by so many great people, that’s how we can do it. Now, if it comes down to actually changing to require unbundling, which is where you have to share your network infrastructure, that’s going to be a much harder fight. And I don’t know that it’s impossible, but there may be better solutions that we have in mind rather than going down that route. DESVARIEUX: Alright, Chris. Let’s get back to the net neutrality rules that were approved by the FCC. So for you is this battle for advocating for net neutrality over? Are there some foreseeable challenges that lie ahead? MITCHELL: Well, let me say that as long as we had big mergers on the docket with Comcast trying to take over Time Warner cable and AT&T trying to merge with DirecTV, there’s always going to be a greater battle on the horizon. These companies have so much power, they have so many lobbyists in D.C.–I mean, the number of just various lobbying firms that Comcast contracts with makes it almost impossible to hire reputable firms that don’t already work for Comcast. So these fights are far from over. I mean, this was a giant victory and we need to celebrate, we deserve to celebrate after having these rules put in place. But as we saw with Dodd-Frank, for instance, the Comcast, the lobbyists, they’re going to be fighting to weaken these rules day-in and day-out in D.C. So we need to stay vigilant. And I would say we also need to make sure that we’re not encouraging these big companies to get even bigger, because it’s a real threat to the market. DESVARIEUX: Isn’t Verizon already coming out saying they’re going to challenge this in the courts? MITCHELL: Verizon is one of many. Now, I think it’s worth noting we would not be here without Verizon. You know, Verizon helped to write the rules in 2010 with our previous FCC chairman, and then they turned around and sued him as soon as those rules were published. Those were much weaker rules. And in retrospect I think Verizon wishes that they had not done that, they would be better off under the previous, weaker rules. Now we have stronger rules, and they as well will be challenged. But I think the FCC has a very strong case in court, much stronger than it has the past. And in fact, actually, in the previous opinions, Justice Scalia has suggested that going this route of this Title II regulation, treating the internet as a utility, as many people are calling it, is the appropriate path forward. DESVARIEUX: Alright. Christopher Mitchell, joining us from Washington, D.C., thank you so much for being with us. MITCHELL: Thank you for having me. DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. Mitchell is a leading national expert on community networks and speaks at conferences across the United States on telecommunications policy. He edits