More than 300 electric cooperatives across the US 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 couldn’t. First, they protect open internet access from the internet service providers (ISP) that stand to pocket the profits from net neutrality rollbacks that the Trump administration announced last November. Second, they bring affordable, fast internet access to anyone, narrowing the digital divide that deepens individual and regional socioeconomic disparities.
In Detroit, for example, forty percent of the population has no access of any kind to the internet. Because of Detroit’s economic woes, many Big Telecom companies haven’t thought it worthwhile to invest in expanding their network to these communities. Internet connectivity is a crucial economic leveler without which people fall behind in schools, health, and the job market.
In response, a growing cohort of Detroit resident has started a grassroots movement called the Equitable Internet Initiative, through which locals are build their own high speed internet. It started with enlisting digital stewards—locals who were interested in working for the nonprofit coalition. Many of these stewards started out with little or no tech expertise, but after a 20-week-long training, they’ve become experts able 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 isn’t the only city with residents who aim to own their internet. Thirty of the 300 tribal reservations in the US have internet access. Seventeen of these 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 brings electrical power to central Missouri farms, has organized to crowdfund the money necessary to establish its own network. By 2014, members enjoyed connection speeds in the top twenty percent of the US, 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 may face political setbacks. In his move to dismantle net neutrality rules, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has made it clear he does not consider the internet a utility, which is how these co-ops are treating it. The biggest dilemma for cities is that there has been an erosion of the capacity for communities to solve their own problems. Yet as success stories travel and 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.
While Motherboard, YES! Magazine, the Nation, and Vice have reported on internet cooperatives, there is no news coverage about this story in corporate media, except for an August, 2016 article in the New York Times 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, 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, 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.
Student Researcher: Amber Yang (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)