The Trump presidency has lit a fire under activists of all stripes in communities across the nation. Mayors of prominent cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and here in Seattle have signaled that they will not play ball with the White House and have taken steps to protect their budgets and residents from potential repercussions.
Large cities and metropolitan areas are fortifying themselves, building economic walls and digging policy moats to guard against federal policies and executive orders, but there’s a Trojan horse in play, and it’s already been wheeled into town square.
That’s to do with utilities and companies that are indispensable to modern life, companies that are about to have an early Christmas if statements from the White House are to be believed.
Wall Street bankers are mopping up their drool as they wait for Obama-era laws such as Dodd-Frank to get the ax. Telecommunications companies may see consolidation on the horizon. Obama prevented consolidation, but the current chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is willing to delete requirements that ISPs load every website equally (net neutrality).
Seattle already has movements ready and willing to push back through the creation of a public bank and municipal broadband internet, turning our banking and communications infrastructure over to the public.
The Seattle City Council voted in February to divest from Wells Fargo over the bank’s investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline, and organizers handed out information on a public bank, potentially owned by the city, to take the banking behemoth’s place.
As net neutrality and internet service for low-income families come under attack, proponents of the public provision of broadband are ready with plans that would protect Seattle’s browser histories and access to noncommercial content, not to mention their pocketbooks.
“I think a lot of people are activated, motivated to fight for change,” said Devin Glaser, a member of Upgrade Seattle, a group pushing for municipal broadband.
Water, power, internet
In October 2016, a group of Seattleites converged on local Comcast offices to protest bad service, lagging internet speeds and high profit margins of the telecom company that had only recently been approved to merge with Time Warner, the company that holds properties such as HBO and CNN.
The protesters advanced on the offices at an intentional snail’s pace.
Brett Hamil, a local comedian active in social justice causes, got involved with the movement and attended the march purely out of selfish reasons, he said, to protest the slow internet speeds at Comcast and CenturyLink, the namesake for the Seahawks’ football stadium.
“I lived on Beacon Hill and wanted to know why I got internet speeds one-tenth the national average,” he said. “I wanted to know why my service was so bad when I lived a mile away from a stadium that took tens of millions of dollars to make.”
Municipal broadband, advocates say, would be cheaper, faster and more equitable for the 15 percent of Seattle’s residents who didn’t have access to the internet, a figure reported by a 2014 phone survey conducted for the city.
It’s also necessary for the future of the city, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a think tank that has helped Seattle’s public internet movement.
“I don’t see why a high-tech city would want to rely on a mediocre network,” Mitchell said.
By Mitchell and Upgrade Seattle’s way of thinking, internet access should be no different city-managed power, water or trash collection services.
A collaboration with Seattle City Light would cut the cost of the construction of the fiber network by approximately $130 million.
Other cities have already done it, mostly rural areas that for-profit companies have ignored. Chattanooga, Tennessee, is the famous example, but Cedar Falls, Iowa, and areas in North Carolina have also gotten on the bandwagon, Glaser said.
“Their route was different than ours. They couldn’t get any internet at all,” Glaser said.
Then there’s Madison, Wisconsin.
The city rolled out municipal broadband to four low-income neighborhoods in September 2016, offering service for $10 a month for 10 megabytes per second. That’s not fast, but they’re looking to up the speeds to 25 megabytes per second when it’s possible, which would exceed Seattle’s average.
It was important for Madison to help bridge the digital divide, said Paul Kronberger, chief information officer for the city. He’d heard from companies nervous about the program. They said they would offer low-income internet service, but it never materialized, so the city stepped up.
The project will also pave the way for the city to roll out a bigger program, because Wisconsin has a law that requires a cost-benefit analysis.
The “Connecting Madison” project will give the city the data it needs to extend fast internet service to more families and businesses.
Seattle officials have entertained the idea in the past, going so far as to put municipal broadband into Seattle’s 2035 master plan. However, the idea may get more play now that the Trump administration appointed Ajit Pai, a net neutrality opponent, to the head of the FCC, the organization that creates and enforces internet regulations.
Net neutrality means that a Vice video about the war in Syria loads at the same speed as “Hart of Dixie” on Netflix. Without net neutrality, voices will be silenced.
Corporations such as Comcast and CenturyLink also put data caps on their services. For most people, that’s fine, but not if you’re a game designer or web developer, data-intensive professions that also take part in the information economy to which Seattle is inextricably linked.
But Glaser wants people to think about it less as an abstract issue of economics, and more as a question of service.
“At the end of the day, are you happy with your current internet provider?” he asked.
Putting your money where your mouth is
If Seattle is discontented with its internet service, it’s definitely upset with its banking apparatus.
The city council became one of the first in the country to formally cut ties with Wells Fargo, a giant bank known for its investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline as well as its shady habit of creating fake bank accounts for its customers and charging them for the privilege.
The bank called the city’s bluff, telling officials that they didn’t need to wait until their contract ran out: They could leave whenever they want.
Washington state law prohibits the city from banking with a credit union, and it also puts requirements on the amount of holdings that a bank would need to have to do business with such a large city, in this case between $300 and $450 million.
That narrows the number of banks that the city can bank with to 63, four of which are in the region.
“There’s a feeling in our work that there’s no perfect company and no perfect bank,” said Meg Voorhes, director of research for the Forum of Sustainable and Responsible Investment. “It may be a question of finding a bank that’s pretty good on a number of issues of concern.”
But what if the city just ran its own?
The banking sector is dominated by large, often international, banks, the “too big to fail” crowd that sunk the United States and much of the world into economic depression in 2008. The rest of the market belongs to community banks, which lend to people based more on relationships rather than a credit score.
There’s an exception: North Dakota.
The Bank of North Dakota is the only publicly run bank in the country, and it’s been a boon to the North Dakotan economy, said Stacy Mitchell, codirector of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
“We found that it generates a number of significant benefits for the state and the state’s economy,” Mitchell said. “It’s a great idea.”
The bank flew under the radar until the financial collapse, she said, but policy makers have begun to take notice. It’s just not easy to start a public bank.
“You really need a set of lawmakers and other officials who are committed to a multi-year process of setting up a new institution,” she said. “It’s a bit to bite off, and it requires a certain amount of technical expertise.”
As it happens, Washington has at least one legislator ready to take it on.
State Senator Bob Hasegawa (D-Beacon Hill) has long been a proponent of a state-owned bank. Current law prohibits it, but his bill in the 2017 legislative session would have allowed for a public bank. Had it ever made it out of committee, that is.
According to mynorthwest.com, this is the fifth session in a row in which the state bank idea got rejected by other lawmakers. Still, the idea could benefit Washingtonians in ways they don’t realize, such as cheaper student loans, mortgages and borrowing costs, Mitchell said.
“Folks who have gotten excited led with the solution rather than making the case that the banking system is not serving us very well,” she said.
None of these ideas are new. The city and its leaders have been investigating opportunities to dive into municipal broadband and banking for years now as residents push from the outside to move them forward.
But the climate is different now. The Trump administration and its policies have created long-term, existential threats to our financial systems by allowing them to play the same games that sank us in 2008. It is holding a knife to the throat of our local economy, which needs access to fast, reliable internet to remain the job engine the administration supposedly wants.
Seattle could make a stand here, and blaze the trail that other cities could follow. The city has that reputation.
When asked if Madison had advice for Seattle on municipal broadband, Kronberger laughed.
“That’s kind of ironic, because we look to Seattle to see what they’re doing,” Kronberger said.
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