In the aftermath of this contentious and bitter presidential election, it is time to turn our attention to two other battles that have gradually taken shape in the background: First, the standoff at the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which Sioux tribal representatives and their supporters say threatens the water supply and desecrates sacred lands in Standing Rock, North Dakota. Second, the proposed merger of giants AT&T and Time Warner, which could create unprecedented consolidation in the media and telecommunications markets.
Different as they may be on the surface, those conflicts could soon overlap. Their meeting-point concerns the concept of broadcast sovereignty – the right of local communities, and especially of First Nations, to determine how they will use their public airwaves for the public interest – including community development, collective decision-making, and public safety. But understanding why broadcast sovereignty is so important today requires exploring these conflicts in greater detail.
The battle for Standing Rock is a David-and-Goliath match, an alliance of indigenous leaders and environmental, racial, and social justice movements against the petrochemical industry, the push for domestic energy independence, and the forces of political power. Since September, photos and live video of First Nations members on horseback staring down armored vehicles or facing off against riot-clad officers and armored vehicles have spread across social media. Protesters and journalists have told stories of attack dogs, helicopters, rubber bullets, LRAD sound cannons, tear gas, and StingRay data collectors mimicking cell towers. Mass arrests have followed as authorities corralled protesters in wire cages, marking their arms with numbers.
The second drama may seem more like business as usual: A massive merger of the titan that sells us media content like Game of Thrones and Batman with the behemoth that sells many of us data for our phones and tablets (while also, incidentally, selling our phones’ metadata to police departments). The future posited by this merger is wireless, mobile, and filled with infotainment – and the resulting company could well own an outsized share of both the means of communication and the content we consume. That company could easily exert undue influence on what content flows through its pipes. Among other things, this means that in that future you might never see anything about what’s happening at Standing Rock. While the merger is hotly contested, some forecasters anticipate that it will succeed with minimal regulatory interference.
Yet another story is playing out beneath both of these, however: FirstNet (the First Responder Network Authority) – an initiative set up by the Commerce Department post-9/11 to create a nationwide interoperable wireless network for disaster response – is approaching an announcement of a winning bid to build and operate the network. So far, the initiative has already cost taxpayers more than $7 billion, and by the time it’s complete, estimates show that FirstNet will cost up to another $40 billion, with funding coming potentially from user fees paid out by public safety agencies and commercial partnerships. The FirstNet contract also comes with a valuable chunk of our public airwaves (20 MHz of prime 700 MHz spectrum), and nothing prevents the FirstNet contractor from collecting revenue on everyday operation in that range (though it will have to share back some portion of that revenue with the government). None other than AT&T is well positioned to win the FirstNet bid, potentially allowing it to re-sell parcels of “beachfront” spectrum to smaller companies for commercial use in normal, non-emergency times.
Like the merger, this presents risks for competition in the telecommunications sector: AT&T could gain the regulatory power it’s long wanted, permitting it to override local zoning and regulation and gain access to publicly controlled rights-of-way (sites where it can build or install infrastructure), potentially attaining access to competitors’ towers in the process. First Nations, long designated as “domestic dependent nations,” have maintained control over their airwaves until now, and some have set up their own independent telecommunications companies. Among these companies is Standing Rock Telecom, which has been a primary source of bandwidth for the live streams emerging from the protests, not to mention a successful provider in the area, furnishing communications service to residents and enabling access to employment and educational opportunities, government services, and social connections.
The potential impact of FirstNet on First Nations’ broadcast sovereignty has many potential repercussions for both telecommunications independence and the integrity of journalism. If AT&T were to shoulder out competitors like Standing Rock Telecom and exercise control over content broadcast on its network, that could once again lead to a situation where certain content could be blocked by the company, regardless of its importance to the public; like Facebook, AT&T is not bound by public interest obligations when it comes to news and reporting. Furthermore, big telecom has a history of pricing services out of reach for poor and marginalized populations.
However, the impending FirstNet announcement could also mean trouble on another level. Our experience of major disasters and emergencies over the last decade has shown that government can’t go it alone when it comes to first response, recovery, and resilience. Disasters and emergencies are experienced locally first – they happen in local places, and survivors seek help nearby. While it’s essential for official emergency response and management to have open channels of communication, community residents are often in the position to be the most critical first responders. And to organize response, local communities need communications systems. FirstNet, however, is designed to preempt or deprioritize citizen services on the designated airwaves in disasters and emergencies.
If AT&T’s FirstNet bid succeeds, it could threaten the viability of small operators like Standing Rock Telecom. But to take an even broader view, it could threaten the viability of all communities to organize themselves in disasters -- both because of preemption and because having more market share could help AT&T push aside smaller, local competitors who are better positioned to fix outages or set up mobile equipment quickly at local sites as needed. Of course, it’s essential for our official first responders to be able to communicate while a catastrophe is underway – but there are many emerging technologies that can help them do so without preempting citizen communications, as well as build-out practices that don’t threaten independent and small telecom companies.
Regardless of what happens with FirstNet, communities should practice resilience now by building relationships and learning who in their neighborhood might need help in an emergency. Yet the communications tools – and our public airwaves -- that help us organize and connect every day should be there for us in emergencies too. As the response to hurricane Sandy shows, it can take first responders weeks to bring aid to some areas, and telecommunications networks are critical for coordinating mutual aid efforts. The most vulnerable and remote communities among us most need to be prepared to go it alone for awhile in an emergency or a disaster.
FirstNet threatens to undermine such frameworks. Native American populations – who count among our most vulnerable and most resilient groups – have been mistreated for centuries. As a country, we have repeatedly broken our treaties with them, poisoned them with mineral extraction, and otherwise exploited their land. While the current battle at Standing Rock is about water, it has grown to represent worldwide indigenous people’s movements to defend natural, religious, and cultural resources. We should add telecommunications, information, self-governance, and preparedness sovereignty to the list, especially as we face an unprecedented level of division in the country combined with likely single-party control of every branch of our government.
This is the emerging question: Will we continue to consolidate resources like water, energy, and communications in the hands of the few and the powerful, distributing them according to consolidated market forces and political power? Or will we build the capacity of local communities to adapt and address emerging needs in our changing world, with its changing climate?