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Another Web is Possible

Most mobile and wireline users rely on a commercial Internet Service Provider (ISP) to access the web. Such ISPs include big dogs like AT&T and Verizon, Time Warner and Comcast, as well as small fries like Earthlink and Juno. However, there is a second class of ISP that is little discussed: nonprofit ISP.

Nonprofit ISPs involve two different types of providers – municipal or community networks and nonprofit corporations.

In 2001, there were only 16 government-run networks in nine states. Today, there are an estimated 150 communities around the country with their own publicly-owned broadband networks. In the face of this significant increase of municipal services, states across the country–including Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas–have passed legislation that restricts municipal broadband.

Among the leading municipal services are in Chattanooga, TN, Bristol, VA, and Lafayette, LA, offering gigabit network services, as fast as the new Google network in Kansas City.

The Chattanooga service is operated through EPB of Chattanooga, the municipally-owned electricity company. It serves approximately 170,000 business and residential customers with telephone, Internet and video services.

In western North Carolina, Main (Mountain Area Information Network) was launched in 1996. In addition to an ISP, Main also operates IndyLink, national dial-up service.

In western Massachusetts, WiredWest brings high-speed Internet access to 40-plus towns long inadequately served.

Oregon supports a number of local networks. JEFFNET operates in southern Oregon and is the state’s oldest non-profit ISP dating back to 1995. In Ashland, OR, the Ashland Fiber Network (AFN) set up its service between 1998-2000. AFN is a high-speed cable television and data communications/Internet system; the cable TV service is an alternative to Charter Cablevision.

However, everything is not rosy with municipal service. In Marietta, GA, the Marietta Board of Lights and Water set up FiberNET, operating it from 1996 to 2004. It built a 400-plus mile network but only attracted some 180 customers; the city sold it in 2004. The UTOPIA (Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency) project was established in 2002 and services 10 municipalities. Of the 56,000 households reached, only around 10,000 have signed up and it is running at an annual loss.

A second nonprofit approach is through a private nonprofit company. One innovative company is Mobile Citizen that offers wireless Internet access for education and nonprofit groups. It was launched in Portland, OR, in 2009, and now offers services in 50-plus cities across the country, including Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Sacramento and Salt Lake City. Mobile Citizen has begun to expand its user base to residential customers. In Cleveland, it has signed up about 1,100 households, many low-income households.

Nicholas Merrill is promoting the most intriguing nonprofit wireless efforts, the Calyx Institute. Merrill previously ran an ISP, Calyx Internet Access, and in 2004 the FBI served him with a National Security Letter (NSL) demanded that he provide the U.S. government with information about one of his clients. He refused and the ACLU took up the case. Over the following six years, Merrill was the subject of a major civil liberties case, Doe v Holder. Now free from the NSL gag order, Merrill is establishing Calyx as a “non-profit telecommunications provider dedicated to privacy, using ubiquitous encryption.” He’s promoting his venture through the crowd-sourcing site, indiegogo.

So, when you get tired of the new data caps policies and ever-increasing charges of your current ISP, you should check out your local nonprofit provider. You just might have a meaningful choice.

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David Rosen is a writer and business-development consultant. He is author of the indie classic Off-Hollywood: The Making & Marketing of Independent Films (Grove), originally commissioned by the Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project. He can be reached at For more information, check out and




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