15 Digital Justice: Internet Co-ops Resist Net Neutrality Rollbacks

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

More than 300 electric cooperatives across the United States are building their own Internet with high-speed fiber networks. These locally-owned networks are poised to do what federal and state governments and the marketplace have not accomplished. First, they are protecting open Internet access from the Internet service providers (ISPs) that stand to pocket the profits from the rollbacks of net neutrality the Trump administration announced in November 2017. Second, they are making affordable and fast Internet accessible to anyone, narrowing the digital divide that otherwise deepens individual and regional socioeconomic inequalities.

In Detroit, for example, 40 percent of the population has no access of any kind to the Internet. Because of Detroit’s economic woes, many big telecom companies have apparently decided that it is not worthwhile to invest in expanding their networks to these communities. Internet connectivity is a crucial economic leveler without which people can fall behind in school, health, and the job market.

In response, a growing cohort of Detroit residents started a grassroots movement called the Equitable Internet Initiative, through which locals have begun to build their own high-speed Internet. The initiative started by enlisting digital stewards—locals who were interested in working for the nonprofit coalition. Many of these stewards began with little or no tech expertise, but after 20 weeks of training they developed the skills necessary to install, troubleshoot, and maintain a network from end to end. They aim to build shared tools, like a forum and a secured emergency communication network—and to educate their communities on digital literacy, so people can truly own the network themselves.

Detroit is not the only city with residents who aim to own their Internet. Just 30 of the more than 300 tribal reservations in the United States have Internet access. Seventeen tribal reservation communities in San Diego County have secured wireless Internet access under the Tribal Digital Village initiative. Another local effort, Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, which was originally established in 1939 to bring electric power to farms in central Missouri, has organized to crowdfund the necessary resources to establish its own network. By 2014, co-op members enjoyed connection speeds in the top 20 percent of the United States, and the fastest in Missouri. By 2016, Co-Mo’s entire service area was on the digital grid.

Co-ops looking to expand the Internet can face political setbacks. In his move to dismantle net neutrality rules, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai made it clear that he does not consider the Internet a utility, though that is how these co-ops are treating it. The biggest dilemma for cities is the erosion of the capacity for communities to solve their own problems. Yet, as success stories travel, they inspire other communities to ask how they can do the same thing. As a result, local Internet service providers are bringing the power back to their people.

There has been no coverage of these success stories by corporate news media, except for an August 2016 New York Times report on how the Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative built its own fiber-based Internet.

Kaleigh Rogers, “Rural America is Building High-Speed Internet the Same Way It Built Electricity in the 1930s,” Motherboard (Vice), December 1, 2017, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/ywnz37/electric-coops-internet-america-cooperatives-broadband.

Kaleigh Rogers, “Ignored by Big Telecom, Detroit’s Marginalized Communities are Building Their Own Internet,” Motherboard (Vice), November 16, 2017, https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/kz3xyz/detroit-mesh-network.

Sammi-Jo Lee, “How Internet Co-ops Can Protect Us from Net Neutrality Rollbacks,” YES! Magazine, November 22, 2017, http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/how-internet-co-ops-can-protect-us-from-net-neutrality-rollbacks-20171122.

J. Gabriel Ware, “When They Couldn’t Afford Internet Service, They Built Their Own,” YES! Magazine, March 26, 2018, http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/when-they-couldnt-afford-internet-service-they-built-their-own-20180326.

Student Researcher: Amber Yang (San Francisco State University) 
Faculty Evaluator: 
Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)