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How to Keep the Government from Breaking the Internet

As the new FCC removes Internet safeguards, telecommunications policy expert Susan Crawford explains how people can protect and expand high-speed access.

Telecommunications policy has been in flux since President Trump designated Ajit Pai the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in January. How will issues such as expanding high-speed Internet availability and preserving net neutrality fare under the Trump administration?

Harvard Law professor Susan Crawford has advised President Obama and two New York City mayors (Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio) on science, technology, and innovation policy. She also co-led the FCC transition team between the George W. Bush and Obama administrations and writes books and articles about telecom policy. She spoke to MIT Technology Review about the value of local community fiber networks, what she thinks the new FCC should do, and her predictions for the future of net neutrality.

The following excerpts of that interview have been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Your position has been very consistent over the years; you think that Americans pay too much for Internet service that isn’t adequate and that lags other developed countries. And recently you’ve been traveling the country looking for solutions.

Yes. In the last three months I’ve been visiting a bunch of scrappy American cities that are working on this issue and I’ve also watched fiber being made and fiber being installed. There are great American characters who really understand this issue and are throwing themselves into it. Right now, San Francisco is the first major American city to be merging toward some kind of fiber plan [that would provide low-cost, citywide, gigabit-speed Internet]. And they have most of the elements in place. I’m an advisor to [them]. I’m really hoping that they will lead the other major American cities.

You’ve been pretty clear about the fact that you consider high-speed Internet access and fiber networks to be bipartisan issues with broad bipartisan appeal. Do you think that’s still true in the current environment?

Absolutely. This is all about local efforts to do the best they can with local money to build great, local networks. And I believe, in the end, this kind of local leadership will be echoed in federal policy. Just not for the next four years.

You’re skeptical about the effectiveness of federal policy in this area, but do you think it’s likely that the current administration will include Internet networks in future infrastructure policy and funding?

Internet access is certainly on the table from a number of senators who are trying to make sure it’s part of an infrastructure spending effort, broadly. So I’m sort of cautiously optimistic about that. The risk, though, is [if they] don’t necessarily upgrade us to fiber everywhere at a reasonable cost.

Yesterday I was in Wilson, North Carolina, which quite a while ago built a fiber-optic network for itself. There, people in public housing have 50-megabit symmetric service [50-megabit downloads and uploads] for $10 a month. It’s just added to their rent. And a mom there told me that this was the best thing that had ever happened to her family, that her kids’ grades are better, that she can apply for more jobs and work on her community-college education online. [This type of Internet access] is like air and water; it’s fundamental. But in this country it’s too expensive and too rare. And that’s a big problem.

You’ve advised previous FCC chairmen. Do you have any advice for the new FCC chairman, Ajit Pai?

That he should be moving in the direction of treating fiber-optic access as a utility; getting people employed to build those networks, which would be very Roosevelt-ian in its impact; and ensuring that access is as cheap as possible.

I also wanted to ask you about net neutrality. Do you have thoughts about what should be done to protect net neutrality and predictions on what you think will happen with it under the new FCC?

What the old FCC did under [former chairman] Tom Wheeler in 2015 was to label high-speed Internet access as a regulated utility. That’s the step that needs to be retained. The risk is that Congress will get active and write some kind of special-purpose Internet access bill that would wipe out that treatment.

Luckily for us, it’ll take a while for them to write such an act and get it done. I’m hopeful that it might take several years. It took 10 years for the last Telecom Act to pass.

What would you encourage people to do who care about these issues?

Educate yourself, get involved, and find your kindred spirits. I think in every community there’s got to be somebody who is worried about this and thinking about it and who understands it. And then getting involved on a local level, giving your elected officials political cover, and thinking creatively about financing. There’s capital sloshing all around America, and things like pension funds would be interested in having a multi-decade investment that steadily pays off like [city-owned fiber networks]. It’s just a matter of aligning all of these forces in the right direction and then fighting off state legislation and federal policies that get in the way.

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