If you needed a reminder about the potential power and critical importance of Tacoma maintaining its publicly owned municipal broadband network – Click!, emphasis on the exclamation – one arrived Tuesday night.
That’s when the City Council took a firm stand in support of the principles of net neutrality. And it did so with several of its members, including Mayor Marilyn Strickland, making their last stand from the dais before new council members and new mayor Victoria Woodards are sworn in early next month.
It was a timely note to go out on.
The good news is that Tacoma, thanks to the prescient work of past city leaders, stands uniquely prepared to counter the assault on net neutrality coming from Washington, D.C.
The even better news is that the work of capitalizing on that preparedness ramped up with a resolution from the council, approved unanimously this week.
The resolution “urgently” requested the Tacoma Public Utility board to “contractually require” all internet service providers that use the Click network to “abide by the Click! Network’s Open Internet Policy supporting net neutrality.”
Hopefully, the TPU board will act quickly to do just that. While TPU spokeswoman Chris Gleason rightly points out that Click already has an “open internet policy, which includes language about net neutrality,” every additional protection an internet user can get these days, and every public statement backing net neutrality protections, is an important one.
Gleason called the City Council’s decision “a great way to formally support our open internet policy.”
Under Obama era net neutrality rules, such a contractual obligation was unnecessary. The Federal Communications Commission had it covered.
But, now? The FCC’s party lines vote last week to undo guaranteed equal access to internet that net neutrality provided leaves no room for ambiguity.
The FCC’s decision means internet providers can engage in a slew of troubling tactics, such as charging different rates to different customers, creating fast and slow lanes on the internet and slowing or blocking certain content altogether.
With the recent net neutrality vote, City Councilman Anders Ibsen foresees “a markedly different” and “very slanted internet,” with companies having the ability to “stifle competition, and stifle innovation.”
“Now more than ever,” he offered, “we need to leverage local systems like Click.”
Luckily, as citizens, we own Click’s fiber infrastructure. And that means we get to have a say on how that infrastructure is used.
“I think the resolution itself is a pretty clear signal that we want to keep free and open internet,” said outgoing City Councilman Marty Campbell, one of the resolution’s four sponsors.
Campbell compared the value of a free and open internet to our public library system.
“When we look at the foundation of our public library system, of being that repository of info that is available to everyone … that’s how I think the internet should be accessible also,” he said.
Like the general public – which has displayed widespread support for the protections net neutrality provides – the City Council agreed.
All of this, of course, fits somewhere into the large discussion about just what Tacoma wants out of its Click network. Forget cable TV and phone for a moment, this is specifically about providing Tacoma citizens with access to the internet.
Most recently, that discussion has centered on the City Council’s desire to pursue an “all-in” business model that would involve becoming a municipally owned and operated company that sells retail internet service directly to the masses.
Such a move, which I support, would create even greater certainty that the city could adhere to the principles of net neutrality.
But, as this week has made clear, there’s plenty of reason to believe that simply maintaining the Click status quo provides ample leverage to protect internet consumers on the network.
What’s terrifying to consider, however, is a deal like the one that eventually prompted the current debate over Click’s future.
Back in early 2015, the Kirkland-based broadband company Wave tried to lease the city’s fiber network for the next 40 years. The City Council wisely pushed back on the idea.
Two years later, Wave is being gobbled up by another internet service provider, part of a massive deal that will make Wave part of the the sixth largest internet and cable provider in the country.
Again, prescient leadership from City Hall. Just think where Tacoma might be today if we had relinquished control of our Click network for the next four decades, at a time when preserving the protections of net neutrality wasn’t on most people’s minds.
Thankfully, we didn’t. And, luckily, we’re in the position we’re in today because of it.
“Having broadband as a public utility ensures that we can set those rules in place, and enforce them, no matter who’s delivering” internet service, Campbell said.
“I think that when you look at maintaining Click as a public entity, it insures that free and open access,” he continued. “When you consider it as a public utility, it says that it is something that is important enough that it should be accessible as all.”
Yes, it should.
Which is just one reason why Tacoma should never take the Click broadband network for granted, and one reason why it should leverage it for good each and every chance it gets.