Thank Your Local ISP

Your local ISP is the only thing keeping you and your community adequately connected to the global economy. And they do it with one metaphorical hand tied behind the back, while blindfolded and barefoot.

Nonsense? Consider this: without competition from your local ISP, the incumbent provider whose slice of the telecom oligopoly’s territory covers your community would raise prices, reduce investment in already-inadequate infrastructure, directly harm your community in subtle ways, and, worst of all, prevent you and your community from accessing the coming wave of life-enhancing digital services.

Your local ISP quietly keeps order in your community, though you might not even know they exist. They are the Rangers on the border of your Shire, every day fighting copper monsters, safeguarding you from evils you know not.

Even if you don’t use their services – and statistically you almost certainly don’t, though maybe you should? – your local ISP’s willingness to work hard to serve your community is the only thing keeping your access to the internet reasonably good.

Your local ISP, which could be a local business, a Rural Electric Cooperative, a broadband coop, or even your town itself, is the caped hero saving your ass from the digital dark ages.

Today, there are just over 2,700 ISPs in America, up 20% from 5 years ago. That roughs out to one ISP for every 50,000 homes. But greater than half of connected American households use one of two cable companies for internet service at home. And more Americans than ever access the internet through outdated copper connections, legacies of the cable and landline phone era, owned and operated by a shrinking pool of giant companies.

Today, it’s easier than ever to start a local ISP. Equipment prices have fallen dramatically. Ingenious startups like Althea work to enable anyone to become an ISP. There’s even a thoughtful guide for starting your own ISP, emerging b2b solutions for small ISPs, powerful mapping tools for planning networks, and a flourishing community of WISPs (wireless internet service providers) working to connect folks using wireless technologies. Common is a personal favorite example here in the Bay Area. I expect they’ll be very big someday, and that their ascent will set a good example, and that they’ll keep incumbents on their toes wherever they decide to go.

Today, incumbent telecom ISPs hold the distinction of having the lowest Net Promoter Scores of any kind of business. Even lower than banks. Yet people still choose the incumbent, for many perfectly sensible reasons. Many do so because that is the only choice they know. Others do so out of desire to access television. Others still are lured away from local providers by introductory offers, even when the local ISP offers measurably better service, which is very often the case.

It’s a puzzle until you look closely at the subtle structural disadvantages designed to hold your local ISP down.

The internet is the largest thing we’ve ever created, and almost certainly the most transformative technology in the history of humankind. It turned 50 a few months ago. There is a digital transformation well underway in every industry thanks to the internet’s global connective tissue.

But there is a problem in America, one that will soon escalate into a full-scale crisis, as the sun rises on the digital services era. As we head in to 2020, Microsoft estimates that 160 million Americans still lack access to even the lowest acceptable quality of broadband.

It’s vital we ensure access for all. Because we now live in the connected economy. There is a new economic operating system, one that will enable remote work, distributed healthcare, immersive entertainment, rural prosperity, and many great outcomes enabled by digital services in ways I’m not creative enough to think up. But the next wave of digital service providers will.

The abysmal state of U.S. information infrastructure will grow very painfully obvious over the next few years, as life-enhancing digital services begin to thrive in today’s very small, very fortunate connected enclaves. Meanwhile, connected people and places will continue racing ahead.

Despite their colossal size and unprecedented power, there are many surprising structural reasons why large incumbent ISPs are not able to install America’s next-gen information infrastructure, even if they wanted to. Even if we assume they will. Even if we believe they already are. They aren’t. And they won’t. Because they can’t. And no amount of government subsidy will change that fact.

Only your local ISP, properly empowered, holds the key to connecting you and your community to the future. Together, local ISPs wielding the right tools can solve America’s emergent broadband crisis.

Local ISPs reading this: keep fighting the good fight. And thank you for keeping us connected. I’d also love to hear your experiences with keeping your community connected. Ping me anytime.

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