On Easter, praise Jesus for the Internet!

The Thinker by Rodin

As you sit at home twiddling your thumbs, imagine how much worse all this social isolation would be without the Internet. There’s not much you can count on these days, but if you at least have a high-speed Internet connection, social isolation and boredom shouldn’t be among them.

It is likely that the Internet will only become more vital in the months and years ahead. That’s because contrary to what you might hope, most of aren’t going anywhere. Those of us who can work from home are going to keep doing so, and many will never return to the office.

“The office” may be one of the casualties of this crisis. If you make it into the office at all, it will probably be to a cubicle of the day. The new normal for white collar people will be what many of us were doing before all this started: working from home. We’ll be using VPNs (virtual private networks) to securely work remotely.

Our social life will evolve to what is already happening: Zoom meetings. This platform seems to be emerging as the go-to online meeting platform. Here on our hill of 55+ people, our association paid for a Zoom account. It sounds silly since we all live in the same neighborhood, but it’s a very socially active neighborhood. Many of these meetings are now virtual. Meeting in person in groups is probably at least a year away.

The ramifications of all this are still being sorted out. We can see one of them today: your Easter service if you are attending one is virtual. Our country was moving in a more secular direction already; this COVID-19 crisis will do more to accelerate it. After a while you may forget why you went to church at all. You can save a lot of money if you don’t have to tithe to your church, and since it can’t provide much in the way of spiritual services, what use is it?

It looks though that in our crazy, upside down world you can at least count on the Internet. Not that it isn’t under stress. Where I live, the only provider is Comcast. With everyone home all the time, and with neighborhoods sharing bandwidth over the same coaxial cable, latency issues are happening from time to time. Sometimes when we stream we get the dreaded hourglass. I’ve looked into this. We were getting 35 megabits per second, but are paying for “up to” 800 megabits per second. Sometimes Comcast can’t do better than 4% of the speed we are paying for.

It will be a wake up call to some that the Internet is not now just a nice-to-have thing, but an absolute necessity, and that we pay way too much for it. For a couple of years I have been trying to persuade our city to create a municipal network to compete with Comcast. The effort has been going great. We were all set to select a vendor to study the viability and costs of the network, then COVID-19 struck. It’s on hold, but I’m betting when our mayor and city council have a chance to catch their breaths, they will prioritize it over a lot of other things going on; indeed, it may be crucial to our city’s recovery from this. Ten years from now, if you are not getting Internet from your local government, you may be thinking you are living in the dark ages. In short, I don’t think Comcast stock is a good buy for the long term.

Most haven’t studied the history of the Internet, so we tend to take it for granted. While there is nothing miraculous about the Internet, the story of how it was created is indeed amazing. It’s the story of the success of long term investment, the sort of thing we rarely do in government anymore. Basically, we threw money at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1960s (then known as ARPA) to try to get military installations and educational institutions to be able to communicate electronically.

The genius behind it was a core group of radical thinkers (something you don’t associate with our Defense Department) that the network should be super reliable. By creating a public packet-switching network using open protocols, we created a super fault-tolerant network. If it breaks down at all, it’s in local neighborhoods like mine where the pipes provided by a single provider aren’t sufficient to meet the demand of the traffic that streams across it.

Imagine how socially isolated you would actually be if there were no Internet. You would be limited to telephone calls, probably from a landline. Since you could not afford long distance, it would be mostly to people on your local exchanges: one at a time, no conference calls. Imagine searching for work without the Internet. You would not be able to go out and knock on employers’ doors in the midst of a pandemic. You would be limited to local want ads in the paper, but even so what jobs that are available would largely be work from home jobs while the pandemic rages. Without the Internet, finding jobs at all is pretty much impossible.

The Internet provides a robust platform for information and knowledge exchange about pretty much anything, any time, and on demand. It just works. The Internet made much of my career possible and continues to provide me with income even in retirement. Now I help clients with their IT problems over the Internet, and have since 2006. I never leave home to work; it’s all done virtually. Most of my clients are from overseas. Without the Internet I would have never had their business. Yesterday, I was charging a client $60/hour to work on a site they are upgrading. Going to the office means going upstairs. That’s my office now and since I retired in 2014 it’s been my only office.

We’ll get through this in time. It’s going to be painful to get through it too. But if you think you are in pain now, imagine what life would be without the Internet. If nothing else, it can keep you fending off boredom pretty much indefinitely. If you are wise, you can use the Internet in this downtime to train for that next career, and emerge a winner in what is likely to be a new, more socially isolating age.

So what’s wrong with democratic socialism?

The Thinker by Rodin

We are told socialism is bad and un-American, but is capitalism really all that great? Consider how poor a job the free market is doing in providing affordable health care. Before the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies did their best to keep their insured pools as pristine as possible. They had no problems canceling people’s insurance when they judged they were too risky and often when they needed it the most.

In spite of the ACA, which Republicans and Trump are working hard to kill, premiums still are going up. Since this latest tinkering by Trump, they are going up a lot while kicking millions off health insurance. Premiums for 2019 will be announced shortly before the midterm elections and they are expected to rise twenty percent or more. This will likely result in lots of disgruntled voters. Right now, the cost and availability of health care is their number one concern. So I really don’t see why Democrats running on a “Medicare for All” platform should fear the wrath of voters. It’s much more likely they will be cheered on instead.

Ask any senior citizen if they want to give up their Medicare. Even the senior citizen gun nuts will give up their guns if the choice was between giving up guns or Medicare. Medicare is wildly popular, despite its issues. The rest of us simply wonder why if it’s good enough for old folks, we younger and healthier people can’t buy into it.

After all, Medicare takes all comers, at least if you meet the age and eligibility requirements. There are certainly aspects of the program that are annoying and baffling. I have been studying them as my Medicare eligibility looms in a few years. I’m not sure why parts B, C and D can’t come as a general benefit for one premium. I don’t understand why there has to be a donut hole if you use their drug program. In any event, universal health care is not that hard. Every major industrialized country except for ours has done it. Surprisingly, people in these countries are quite happy with their systems overall. So while we are creating Medicare for All, let’s improve the system too.

Of course with our Congress awash in health care money, their real mission seems to be to keep these companies flush with profits. Which is why me and the majority of Americans could really use Medicare for All, which is basically democratic socialism at work. It’s socialist in the sense that the government creates and manages the system. It’s democratic in that we the people get to elect people who will enact such a system.

The private sector has proven not up to the task. That’s why Medicare was created in the first place. The private sector didn’t want anything to do with insuring old people. There was no profit in it so it was either put grandma in the poor house or create a government program to fix the issue. Now health care costs are getting so high for the rest of us that we simply can’t afford it even if we can find insurance.

Republicans don’t get that the government’s purpose is to do things the private sector can’t or won’t but which the public needs. If there were no needs like this, we wouldn’t need government. Private health insurance is a failure. Rather than lowering prices, it raises them for all while kicking millions off health care altogether. Competition between insurers with an even playing field was the basis of the ACA. It helped but it has not proven to be the solution. We need something a whole lot more socialistic.

So sign me up as a Democratic Socialist. There’s no Democratic Socialist party to join, but maybe there will be if the Democratic Party can’t get its act together on these pressing issues. Government exists to help all its citizens and to provide solutions where the free market can’t or won’t affordably or at all. I see this out here in western Massachusetts where I live. Cities out here have high speed Internet, but many in the hill towns don’t. Comcast and the like can’t be bothered. It’s not profitable. No wonder local governments are engaging in some democratic socialism by creating community networks, an effort I am helping lead in my city, and we already have Comcast. (We’ve figured that without Comcast, we could get 1 gigabit per second fiber to the home for a third less than Comcast charges. No wonder Comcast can afford to buy all those arenas.)

Ironically, many of the tenets of Democratic Socialism put Trump in the White House. During the campaign he promised much better health care than we have now for much less. He’s done nothing to implement this promise; in fact he has gone in a completely different direction. Many Obama voters voted for Trump because they thought he could break this gridlock by being different. Obviously they were crassly used, but the idea of having great health care while paying a lot less for it is sound, and is now the number one concern of voters.

Let’s bring in a whole new crew of Democratic Socialists to Congress in the midterms. Hopefully we can replace every Tea Partier elected in 2010 with a Democratic Socialist instead. Let’s let government govern again. Lyndon Johnson was the right leader in the 1960s to bring Medicare to fruition. Medicare for All can be done providing we elect leaders committing to doing the people’s business first.

Project Muni

The Thinker by Rodin

I have a new project of sorts: convince our city to construct a municipal network.

What’s a municipal network? “Munis” as they are sometimes called are publicly controlled Internet Service Providers. So rather than get Internet from Comcast or Time Warner, you might get it from your town or city instead, or more likely some legal entity chartered by your town or city.

Munis seem to be catching on. They tend to spring up in places that don’t have high-speed Internet, which means they are mostly more in rural areas. Some years back across the Connecticut River from us in Leverett, Massachusetts the citizens decided they were done with dialup. So they created LeverettNet. For $73.89 a month subscribers get a 1 gigabit per second true fiber Internet access to the home out in what is arguably the middle of nowhere. In my city across the river we already have high-speed Internet, and it’s called Comcast. For about $75/month you can get “up to” 60 megabits per second Internet to the home. (Comcast offers a good deal for the first year you would expect.) But there’s no true fiber to the home here; it’s stepped down to coaxial cable. Comcast doesn’t offer a 1-gigabit per second service like Leverett does, but you can buy 2 gigabits per second in some places of our city … for $299.99 a month. Ouch!

Like in most communities, Comcast is the only game in our community. There are plenty of communities mostly in the hill towns around here that are largely left to fend for themselves. Comcast doesn’t go there because it’s not profitable. There are fewer subscribers and the houses are further apart. The town of Leverett has only 1900 residents so they had to figure out how to do it themselves. In one sense though they were lucky. Amherst, Massachusetts is not too far away. They could get service there and extend it across the telephone polls to the town.

It’s too early to know if we will be successful in getting our city of 30,000 to build a muni. We haven’t formally petitioned the City Council yet. It seems kind of redundant since Comcast is available everywhere. But it’s the only game in town. Leverett across the river with a much more spread out population though has figured out it can deliver a service nearly seventeen times faster than Comcast’s for about the same price. That sounds … appealing!

So a group of us are organizing. Right now this involves mostly reaching out and research. On the face of it though there is a business case to be made for a city muni. Perhaps the best-known muni and one of the most controversial is one built for the City of Chattanooga, Tennessee against the strong wishes of Comcast. Its most popular service is the 100 megabits per second service, priced at $57.99 a month. This suggests that a muni should cost about a third less for similar service compared with Comcast.

It turns out that saving money is just one of the many reasons for communities to build munis. In our research we’ve uncovered a whole lot of other reasons. Here are just some:

  • Comcast is responsible to shareholders, so they have every incentive to bilk customers for all they can get. It’s not too hard since they are the sole provider. A public board though would oversee a muni. It would be not-for-profit and presumably accountable to its subscribers and our city government.
  • Comcast is “innovating” by doing away with Net Neutrality, although it claims it won’t slow down services for websites. But it certainly could, particularly if they think they could make a buck doing so. A muni would probably require Net Neutrality.
  • Comcast has no competition and thus no reason to lower prices but plenty of reasons to raise them. Verizon did introduce its FiOS service in a few neighborhoods but quickly learned it wasn’t profitable to do it citywide. They will make money in services that have fewer competitors, so they are concentrating on wireless access.
  • Comcast isn’t improving their network. Many of the telephone polls have their optical fiber on them, but not all of them and less so along stretches of road that are less populated. It’s all stepped down to coaxial cable at some point, but in places there is a lot of coaxial cable between your home and a fiber drop. There’s no reason for Comcast to improve their network because there’s no competition and doing so would lower profits anyhow.

I believe that high-speed Internet access is a requirement today. It is really a new utility, the same way power, gas and sewage are. To meet the needs of citizens in these communities, Internet service should be managed by some sort of governmental body. The private sector model is largely a failure. It has failed in the hill towns around here because the private sector won’t serve that market. It’s a failure also because you only have one choice in most markets.

It’s time. The Tennessee Valley Authority was created to bring electricity to Appalachia because the private sector wouldn’t. Massachusetts is making half-hearted efforts to subsidize high speed internet for the hill towns via a Wired West initiative, but it’s underfunded and mostly languishing.

One of the reasons Trump won the presidency in 2016 was because of the frustration of people in more rural communities. I’m sort of in this boat now. Here the economy has grown little if at all since the Great Recession. That’s is part of its charm to me. (I can actually see the stars at night again.) But it’s not too hard to see that a good part of the reason these communities are suffering is that they suffer from an unequal playing field. Cities with their natural higher densities are going to be profitable to serve so they will get robust high-speed Internet and maybe residents can choose from multiple providers.

In most cases these hill towns around here don’t have the money to create their own munis. Towns like Leverett found ways to do it through issuing bonds, and that’s probably how it will get built where I live if we can convince the City to sanction one. By having robust high-speed Internet out here in the more rural parts of the country at an affordable price, communities like mine can begin to seriously address the rural vs. urban divide, much the way the Tennessee Valley Authority brought Appalachia into the 20th century.

For the foreseeable future though not much in the way of resources will come from the federal government. So mostly we must roll our own, if we can figure out a way to do so. In the case of my small city I think it will encourage businesses and entrepreneurs to move here, where the cost of living is lower anyhow and where many natural beauties are literally just outside your door.

You can learn more about municipal networks at muninetworks.org. If like me you are frustrated by the lack or high cost of high-speed Internet maybe you should do what I am doing and rise up and demand it.