If You Want To Fix U.S. Broadband Competition, Start By Killing State-Level Protectionist Laws Written By Duopolists
from the long-overdue dept
For fifteen years now I’ve watched as phone and cable duopolies lobby to pass draft legislation designed to keep broadband uncompetitive. Specifically, in more than a dozen states these protectionist measures either hinder or outright ban a town or city’s ability to wire itself for broadband (either alone or with a private industry partner) — even in cases where nobody else will. If the laws don’t ban such efforts outright, they force anyone looking to build a broadband network to jump through layers upon layers of bureaucratic hoops, during which the regional duopolies with limitless budgets harass the efforts with lawsuits and negative publicity campaigns (I’ve seen ISPs hire push pollsters to tell locals that a government-built network would ban their religious programming).
The worst part of these bills is that at their base they’re simply duopolists buying laws that keep towns and cities from making regional infrastructure decisions for themselves, whether that’s building their own core fiber network or developing a public/private network build partnership. Carriers get to have their cake and eat it too; they’re not going to build you better broadband networks, but they’re not going to let anybody else do it, either. Some of these projects work, some don’t (it depends on the specific business model), but if the country is actually serious about improving broadband competition, these miserable bills are the very first thing that need a long, hard look.
For many years these bills were quickly passed without much debate, public scrutiny and absolutely no tech-press attention. All too often, when they were noticed, they were defended using traditional partisan tropes. Locals simply trying to get connected by any means necessary are usually vilified and portrayed as supporting “government meddling with industry.” It’s a shame, given that, like so many technical issues, there should be nothing partisan about protecting your local rights. Fortunately, with Google Fiber’s entry into the market I’ve seen a renewed flurry of attention on these bills, in large part because several would have impacted Google Fiber’s expansion, and Google Fiber, as I’ve noted, appears to have captured the imagination of the public.
In Kansas, for example, cable operators recently ran into a bit of a chainsaw when they attempted to ban towns and cities in the state from running their own fiber or working with partners like Google Fiber (operating in Kansas City). SB304 claimed to allow such efforts if they targeted unserved customers, but then sneakily defined unserved as someone unable to even get satellite or a cellular dial tone, ensuring that nobody would get that designation (a pretty common trick to make the bills seem more reasonable). In Utah, SB190, one such bill pushed in part by regional incumbent CenturyLink, also won’t be surviving this year thanks in part to the new attention Google Fiber (who purchased a network in Provo) has brought to the issue.
A few years ago, these bills would have flown through state legislatures with nary a mention. Not only are new bills starting to fail more regularly under heightened public awareness, I’m starting to see — for the first time in my many years covering the industry — pushes to roll back some of these ridiculous protectionist measures. In Tennessee, for example, there’s four different bills in process that would roll back such incumbent-friendly bills, and they’re coming from both sides of the political aisle. Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica, who has been doing an absolutely fantastic job lately making these important issues interesting for readers, notes how local ISPs quickly complained about the sea change:
“We are particularly concerned about four bills that have been introduced this session,” Tennessee Telecommunications Associations chief Levoy Knowles said in an announcement. The TTA claimed to be presenting “concerns of rural consumers” but are more worried about the potential of losing customers. “These bills would allow municipalities to expand beyond their current footprint and offer broadband in our service areas. If this were to happen, municipalities could cherry-pick our more populated areas, leaving the more remote, rural consumers to bear the high cost of delivering broadband to these less populated regions,” Knowles said.”
Yes, god forbid you’d have to face a new competitor and adjust your business model accordingly; you might even have to work with a local government to determine what works best in each region! Meanwhile, Google Fiber’s recent announcement to help 34 cities in nine regional markets examine local fiber needs should bring greater attention to the issue. Google intentionally targeted regions like North and South Carolina, where regional incumbent Time Warner Cable passed protectionist bills a few years ago (on their fourth try). It only took fifteen years, but we’re only just starting to see people realize that perhaps letting your regional duopolists write laws dictating what you can and can’t do for your own community might not be the best idea.