Opinion

A clarion call

It’s no stretch to imagine Comcast or Verizon executives reading about Peabody’s plan to deliver a homegrown high speed network to local residents and saying, “Oh, isn’t that cute.”

Facebook and Amazon loom over the global economic landscape, but big cable providers are still cast in the roles giant telephone monopolies played until 25 years ago. In many communities, like Peabody where Comcast is the local cable provider, the big guys still strut around like they are the only game in town when it comes to communications.

The truth is, they are — but the Peabody Municipal Light Plant (PMLP) with Mayor Ted Bettencourt’s blessing wants to change that business configuration by creating a “fiber loop” enabling new high-speed data networks to connect all major city departments.

That objective is only half of the plan PMLP and Bettencourt have in mind. In defiance of Comcast and Verizon, they want the proposed loop to have sufficient capacity to potentially deliver super high-speed Internet service to Peabody residents and other online users.

Peabody is surely not the only small community in the United States or any other nation to embrace that lofty, even bold, objective. The reality is that the Internet is very much like the Wild West with big communications companies purporting to be the only sheriff in town even as brash gunslingers swagger in ready to square off on Main Street.

Big communications providers that once thought of their business in terms of landlines and television now have to provide online services in order to stay competitive. But competition as defined by big corporations equals different expectations than the ones envisioned by local leaders like Bettencourt.

In explaining his support for the PMLP high-speed fiber loop, Bettencourt called out Comcast and Verizon saying, “Third party network providers … have not stepped up to better serve our city users …”

That is a stinging indictment with significant implications for big communications providers and the future of homegrown Internet service. Make no mistake: the competitive threat posed by PMLP or similar municipal utility in any other small community is akin to the threat posed to the Union Pacific Railroad 120 years ago by a brash Western state daring to propose starting its own railroad.

But the potential for PMLP and other municipal utilities across the nation to deliver Internet service connects directly with the need to ensure all residents in all communities have Internet access. Lack of high-speed Internet access puts people at an economic disadvantage and marginalizes their role in society in an age when communications is the paramount currency for prosperous and engaged social interaction.

PMLP and Bettencourt’s bold stand in Peabody is a clarion call to other communities not already engaged in localizing the Internet to stand up and demand access or, if need be, create it for their residents.

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