What if big telecom isn’t the only game in town for internet service? Member-owned cooperatives and community networks are springing up around the country. And what’s more, they’re making net neutrality—unthrottled access to an open net—a core value.
Jose Lovato was driving out to a Kit Carson Electric Cooperative substation in Taos that’s also a hub for their broadband network. He helped lead the charge to bring reliable internet service to the mountainous regions of northern New Mexico when major telecom companies just wouldn’t do it. "I was very fortunate to be out there on the first connections that was the most rural town, which was in Amalia, straight north of here" he said, "and able to see them get internet, this type of speeds, for the first time ever, was monumental. It was ecstatic. And this was a community that my mother was from."
Amalia is near the Colorado border, and Lovato grew up in neighboring Costilla. Both towns have about 200 residents.
Lovato’s the co-op’s outside plant manager and fiber optics systems engineer. When he started working through how to bring reliable broadband up here, he said he was trying to level the playing field. Small towns had been struggling with internet speeds just a fraction faster than dial-up before the co-op started constructing its network six years ago. "My dad never used a computer up until I put a fiber-optic line to his house, and now I can’t get him off of Craigslist," Lovato laughed. "So it’s little things like that they have grown from that they never had before."
Co-op members through Taos Pueblo and Taos, Picuris Pueblo and Las Trampas, are getting fast, reliable service, for less than what most customers are paying in bigger cities.
"The people own the network," Lovato said, "so if they want to see changes, they get to vote and tell us what they like to see and what they don’t like seeing. So it’s them having their voice."
Co-ops and do-it-ourselves community projects are inspiring other people to build networks that they control—especially as net neutrality protections disappear. Motherboard, a Brooklyn-based multi-media publication, has been covering telecom monopolies for years, looking at how even customers in cities are forced to pay high rates for slow or unreliable service—if there’s service at all.
Jason Koebler is Motherboard’s editor in chief. "What we’ve seen is people who are frustrated in a lot of these cities that are underserved have started building their own networks," he said. "So these are small community groups that have been buying a connection and then giving it away for free or really cheap to the local community."
On the day the FCC voted to do away with net neutrality rules, Motherboard announced it would build its own network based in its Brooklyn headquarters. The plan is to document every step of the process, so anyone who wants to can build an alternative network. Koebler is hoping it will be running this summer. "We are trying to do it as bare bones as possible, because we want people to be able to do the same thing if they don’t have a huge budget," he said. "What we are imagining is that this is the type of thing that a community group could crowdfund."
Service can be spotty in urban environments, too—just like it used to be all over Taos County. Forty percent of people in Detroit don’t have access at home, and advocates there say it’s a civil rights issue. So neighborhoods have been building their own wireless networks.
"Ultimately this is sort of about digital freedom and internet access equality," he said. "One way to make the recent ruling by the FCC irrelevant is if a lot of these smaller networks pop up all over the country."
Co-ops in New Mexico that offer broadband are making the same choice to provide unhindered access to the net. Andrew Gonzales is the telecom manager for Kit Carson. "We’ve arbitrarily chosen not to do any type of speed-throttling or to do any type of price-gouging against our customer base—or our member base—because this is their network," he said.
At the Kit Carson Co op in New Mexico, leaders there have vowed to preserve neutrality on their network, too. "As a member-owned cooperative, we’re much different than an investor-owned telecommunications company where it’s about return on investment and bottom line."
Gonzales said Kit Carson won’t discriminate against any neighborhood or area based on class, and it won’t arbitrarily spike rates. The co-op’s mission is to serve everyone.
KUNM co-reported that story with Leah Todd, a reporter with the Solutions Journalism Network. It’s all a part of the “State of Change” project produced in collaboration with the Solutions Journalism Network and other newsrooms around New Mexico.