Cities want to opportunistically lay fiber lines during big digs, but Koch dark money is trying to stop them

Kentuckywired is a project to run fiber between cities in Kentucky, creating a high speed network for the state's operations. It involves a lot of expensive public works — digging up streets and highways to lay down relatively cheap fiber and conduit (the digging is the expensive part).

A citizens' group worked with Louisville Metro Council to take advantage of the public works project: they proposed to lay down some extra fiber during the buildout that could serve the people of Louisville, as well as laying the groundwork for a smarter city: connectivity to wire up traffic signals, public safety agencies, and so on.

Louisville is one of the most segregated cities in the country, and the poor people of West Louisville suffer all the maladies of poverty, like ill health. Not coincidentally, they are dramatically underserved by the telcoms monopolies of Kentucky.

By combining a municipal fiber network with the statewide effort, Louisville could shave the cost of running fiber from $15m to $5m, and jumpstart its new life as a city where the internet was truly world-class.

But as the plan started to move through the city council, it met stiff resistance from a mysterious group called "Taxpayers Protection Alliance," who created a misinformation campaign suggesting — hilariously — that the whole idea of wiring up the city was a plot by Google to trick taxpayers into subsidizing its Google Fiber product.

This Taxpayers Protection Alliance is lavishly funded by Koch dark money, laundered through other groups the Kochs fund. The TPA spends that money in dirty fights to carry water for cable and phone company internet duopolies in cities across America, contributing to America's status as one of the worst-provisioned countries in the OECD.

Once the TPA's connection to the Kochs was revealed, Louisville council started paying attention to the substance of the debate, and voted to lay down the network.

At the end of the day, the Koch-funded campaign backfired. It helped fire up some council members who might not have understood the importance of city fiber; once they knew the Koch brothers were against it, the city's plan got their attention. "That felt pretty good," Simrall says.

If the Koch brothers were willing to throw money at opposing an incremental, cheap effort to string fiber alongside an existing state network plan, just imagine what they'll be capable of around more ambitious local efforts. There is a major onslaught looming.

Simrall doesn't think the Kochs actually care about fiber. "It's all their way of opposing particular municipal or state efforts," Simrall says.

The scary thing is that the TPA message can be effective to a public that doesn't understand the importance of fiber and can be easily swayed by claims that internet access should be handled solely by the private sector. The same kinds of Koch-like scare-points were rolled out when the unregulated private sector was solely in charge of electricity 100 years ago. But, as Simrall points out, "At this point, who would go to a city that doesn't have electric utilities? Who would go to a city that doesn't have water, or access to highways? Fiber is that type of infrastructure plan."

Koch Brothers Are Cities' New Obstacle to Building Broadband [Susan Crawford/Wired]

(Image: Donkey Hotey, CC-BY-SA)