March 1, 2005

The Illinois Telecommunications Act and the Future of the Internet In Illinois: An Interview with Organizer Michael Maranda

In the midst of an ever-changing digital landscape, the digital future for the state Illinois will be likely be shaped with a 2005 rewrite of The Illinois Telecommunications Act. Though many questions are likely to be raised amid the rewrite, the main issue might be that of control. Will communities be able to create their own technological infrastructure based on community needs and desires and timetables? Or will communities be dependent on giant telecom companies like SBC and Verizon whose primary concern is profit?

The state's digital future is very much up for grabs. One community organizer who is working on the Illinois Telecom Act is Michael Maranda, a Chicago resident who wears multiple hats as president of the Association For Community Networking, the co-chair of the Illinois Community Technology Consortium, and president of the Chicago Chapter of CTCNet (a nonprofit umbrella organization of community techonology centers).

Third Coast Press's Mitchell Szczepanczyk spoke with Michael Maranda about the Illinois Telecom Act.

What are the stakes at hand with this rewrite? How is this poised to impact people's everyday lives?

There are several dimensions. There's concern about the digital divide, that poorer communities don't have ready internet access and that big telecom companies aren't likely to provide improved technologies to the poor because they're not very profitable. And SBC's own literature has openly talked about this; you can look it up on their website. They classify three different tiers" of customer, and the levels of anticipated investment for each tier; they plan something like 5% investment for the bottom-third tier of incomes, or what they term "low-value" customers.

It's also a matter of cost-effectiveness for state governments, that having a digitally literate populace would help to reduce costs for the state. That's because it's cheaper to provide some government services online. There's also the matter of consumer protections in terms of price and quality. Your internet, telephone bill, cellphone bill, perhaps your cable bill could all be provided by the same company. You are sold a package deal, but actually you get separate contracts. Imagine two typical parents agree to a contract: two cell phones, an internet contract, a long distance contract, and regular phone service. How many contracts is that with potential termination fees of $100 to $150 per contract, and how often is the package you are billed for not the package you agreed to?.

The telecom companies are pushing to deregulate, to let companies dictate policies. But the telecom companies are guilty of unfair and deceptive practices in their marketing and in their public lobbying -- to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt. And they're looking to wipe away the requirement of universal service for communications, a requirement which dates to the 1930s. But we have to treat these digital technologies as essentials now and we should have laws which serve and protect people.

It also is the question of protecting of the right of communities to deploy their own digital networks, and allow people to invest in their own communities. Currently, communities in Illinois have that right, and hopefully that right will stay. But it's a very difficult fight ahead of us, because there's a lot of money at stake.

Who stands to benefit from this? Is it only SBC?

It's mostly SBC, but Comcast also stands to gain. But it's interesting: I read an article saying that these companies are fighting the wrong game, that they want end-to-end controls to customers. But the different potentials of wireless could change that game considerably, because they're fighting for control of the current communications infrastructure, including the internet.

Some people will say "Hey, I'm already getting good internet connectivity at a reasonable price. What difference would it make if I get my telecom services from SBC or from a local municipal network?"

But what is a reasonable cost? The amount we're paying SBC gives them so much money to lobby in their interest. The cost of actually running the network at a higher speed than what you have now is something like $5 per month. What are most people paying per month for high-speed DSL connection? About $40 per month. And those are the current figures; as technology improves, costs should go down.

It's effectively a monopoly market. Why don't you have other choices?

What do you see as the range of possible outcomes? What's the best and worst case scenario in what's to come?

Worst case scenario: A greater deregulation of telecommunications which gives SBC free reign over everything. And they take away the rights of political subunits (like municipal groups) to deploy their networks if they so choose, or putting such huge obstacles in the way.

Best case scenario: I don't know because different people have different visions of a better telecommunications service. One model I like is advocated by information architect Andrew Cohill which is that of "connecting the dots", that along different levels of transport model would be provided at different levels (federal, state, local) but at each level you'd have different competitors for different internet services, which should also foster the creation of local media content. I'd like to see an alliance between community technology folks and community media folks to fight the media consolidation we've been seeing and create new types of local content.

There's a great project in Champaign-Urbana, where they're making new mesh internet networks, which leverages internet connections more intelligently to create more bandwidth than you would otherwise have [ED: Details are online at]. That would create new local intranets (not internet) and allow for more local media creation potential.

How do you hope to bring greater public involvement in the Illinois Telecom Act rewrite?

We're encouraging the state legislature to hold regional hearings across the state to bring more public participation. We would also organize what are called LAPs -- basically small get-togethers of maybe 8-10 people, for people to meet and organize. We also anticipate organizing larger public events.

The act is before the state legislature in this session, with a timeframe from the beginning of February to the end of May. People can contact their representatives in the state House and Senate along with Senate President Jones, House speaker Madigan, Governor Blagojevich, and the state telecommunications committees to encourage public protection and maintain the digital rights of communities.

To learn more or to get involved, you can join the Get Illinois Online discussion and organizing list at