AT&T Buying Missouri State Law Ensuring Broadband There Continues To Suck

from the protectionism-for-sale dept

For years incumbent ISPs like AT&T have spent millions lobbying for laws in roughly twenty states prohibiting towns and cities from building or expanding broadband networks — even in cases of obvious market failure. The laws are pure protectionism, taking the right to make local infrastructure choices out of the hands of local communities — all to protect companies like AT&T from the faintest specter of competition. And while some states have been waking up to the fact that letting AT&T write protectionist state law hurts consumers and state businesses longer term, Missouri apparently isn’t one of those states.

Missouri had already passed a 1997 law that hamstrung towns and cities looking to build networks to shore up coverage gaps. But the Missouri state legislature is now pushing some additional restrictions on muni broadband under the banner of HB 2078. HB 2078 comes on the heels of AT&T shoveling a sizable amount of cash into the laps of Missouri state lawmakers, and is necessary — according to AT&T — in order to”level the playing field”:

“We believe that if a governmental entity seeks to deploy or operate a GON [government operated network] in a market that can be served by the private sector, there should be safeguards in place to ensure a ‘level playing field,’ which is why we expressed support for HB 2078,” AT&T told Ars.

Right. Except most of these municipal broadband networks wouldn’t be proposed if locals were happy with incumbent broadband services. Communities aren’t jumping into the telecom sector because it’s fun. They’re doing so out of necessity. They’re doing so because a lack of broadband competition has left massive coverage and quality gaps nobody is willing to fix. As such, the only thing being “leveled” here are grass roots attempts to shore up obvious market failure. And while framed as a partisan issue, most municipal broadband networks enjoy broad bipartisan support, and are often approved in notably Conservative areas.

Some of these bills ban networks entirely. Some just saddle public or public/private competitors with onerous reporting requirements. Some demand additional public referendum. Usually, as one lawyer notes, it’s because companies like AT&T have bottomless pockets in which to bombard towns with negative PR ahead of community votes:

“While municipalities sometimes prevail in such referenda, they are time-consuming and burdensome, making public communications initiatives much more cumbersome than private initiatives,? Baller wrote in an FCC filing in 2014. ?Moreover, in most cases, the incumbent communications providers vastly outspend municipalities and dominate the local news through their control of the local cable system.?

Over the years these PR assaults have often been downright nasty. On more than one occasion, incumbent ISPs have used push polls to convince locals that approving municipal broadband projects would result in taxpayer-sponsored pornography, the loss of religious programming, or the loss of local jobs. Towns can avoid having a PR and marketing showdown with multi-billion dollar corporations if they meet select obligations set forth by the bills, though the restrictions are designed to be difficult if not impossible to meet:

“I’ve called these a ?leprechaun riding on a unicorn bill,? which is to say, ?you can do this action if you can bring a leprechaun riding on a unicorn,? kind of like the whole knights who say Ni who force you to chop down a tree with a herring,? Mitchell said. “The exception for communities where fewer than 50 percent of residents have Internet access is ?kind of fascinating,? he said. ?It’s kind of like, if the private sector is serving 80 percent of the town, the last 20 percent can just suck it.?

The FCC took aim at state municipal broadband bans last year, after municipal broadband providers in Tennessee and North Carolina complained that state laws were preventing them from expanding. The FCC argues the restrictions clash with the FCC’s Congressional mandate to ensure “reasonable and timely” broadband deployment. AT&T-loyal politicians have countered by claiming the FCC’s just a bully attacking states rights. In some places, like Colorado, voters are realizing what these laws actually are and have been rolling them back piecemeal. In most states however residents either don’t realize what’s happening, or have been distracted by the quite-intentional game of partisan patty cake.

The irony in all of this is that AT&T doesn’t really give a damn about most of these areas anyway. The company is hanging up on vast swaths of DSL territory it refuses to upgrade so it can focus on wireless. But after a generation of legacy turf protection, AT&T’s lobbying apparatus effectively runs on auto-pilot, attacking any threat to the status quo (read: anything that might force them to upgrade or expand last-generation DSL offered at sky-high prices).

But to shore up broadband coverage in the face of private sector failure, public/private partnerships are an absolutely essential part of the equation. Community broadband bans are little more than greasy cronyism; a throwback to the ma bell era in desperate need of retirement if the country seriously wants to move broadband forward.

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Companies: at&t

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Comments on “AT&T Buying Missouri State Law Ensuring Broadband There Continues To Suck”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

For a very loose definition of 'level'

“We believe that if a governmental entity seeks to deploy or operate a GON [government operated network] in a market that can be served by the private sector, there should be safeguards in place to ensure a ‘level playing field,’ which is why we expressed support for HB 2078,” AT&T told Ars.

Absolutely, which means that any perks or bonuses that AT&T gets should be equally available to public or government options as well, and anything that those options don’t get AT&T shouldn’t get either.

No tax breaks or subsidies, no special treatment under the law, no laws prohibiting someone else from moving in and offering service. If they really want a level playing field, then AT&T and similar companies shouldn’t get any special treatment whatsoever. If they want to move into a market then it’s entirely up to them to pay for it and negotiate for what is required.

JonC (profile) says:

Re: For a very loose definition of 'level'

I had a somewhat different take on this quote. I’m sure AT&T must have made mistake with their wording. Surely they meant to put it this way:

“We believe that if a governmental entity seeks to deploy or operate a GON [government operated network] in a market that IS WELL served by the private sector, there should be safeguards in place to ensure a ‘level playing field,’ which is why we expressed support for HB 2078,”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: For a very loose definition of 'level'

If it’s really the case that the government has an ‘unfair advantage’ perhaps that’s an indication that this is a service better served by government. Isn’t the point of allowing government to provide certain services exactly because they have an ‘unfair’ advantage and can better serve us than the private sector? If it’s the case that the government has an ‘unfair’ advantage this is something to be embraced. The point whole point shouldn’t be to ensure that businesses maximize profit it’s to increase aggregate output and consumer surplus.

I’m not saying that broadband is something better served by government. Just that the argument that government needs to ensure that government doesn’t have an ‘unfair’ advantage is no reason to hinder government developments. There is no such thing as an ‘unfair’ advantage, no advantage is ‘unfair’ and any advantages government does have is a reason to embrace municipal broadband.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: For a very loose definition of 'level'

IOW the exact reason to embrace municipal broadband or any government service is exactly when the government has an unlevel playing field. You can’t argue that the government has an unlevel playing field and therefore should be hindered, any advantageous unlevel playing field government has is exactly why the government is better able to serve the market and therefore should be embraced.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: For a very loose definition of 'level'

I’m of the opinion that government NEEDS to interfere in the market to provide competition where there is none. If you simply wait till the market “corrects itself” you’ll be waiting for a long, long time.

Besides, I’m skeptical that the mere push-and-pull of supply and demand can, in and of itself, resolve this issue as take it or leave it is not an option, it’s the maxim of a complacent incumbent with his middle finger raised aloft.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: For a very loose definition of 'level'

…government NEEDS to interfere in the market to provide competition where there is none…

When it comes to broadband (and other digital services) competition hasn’t been so much an issue as infrastructure. Many local governments are balking at multiple towers in one location and multiple fibers under the roads and sidewalks. Legacy telcos and cablecos had the advantage in that they had infrastructure already in place when broadband (and other digital services) became available. Newcomers face a high financial burden just to go into one market unless they can share existing fiber and/or towers. But many existing infrastructure owners are balking at sharing, or charge unjustifiable high leases for sharing. Even satellite delivery has high capital costs putting most providers out of the market (look at DirectTV & Dish Network for a good example; if the capital costs weren’t so high you’d probably see a few more providers here).

mcinsand (profile) says:

Re: you forgot the /sarc flag

The only difference between Democrats and Republicans is that one is owned by one set of corporations while the other is owned by a different set. The parties no longer have any actual ideology beyond staying in power. ‘Conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are no longer terms associated with a perspective but merely whether a person has decided to wear one brand name or the other.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: you forgot the /sarc flag

now, now, let’s not get too cynical…
hee hee hee
that’s my job…
ho ho ho
besides, there is one korporate money party…
ha ha ha
but it is equally generous to both lapdogs ! ! !
ak ak ak

meta comment:
not sure if i said this before, but i really like the clean, simple layout of techdirt, and how the stories are presented with a couple paragraphs which fade out, to be revealed upon smooshing the ‘expand’ button…
however, frequently read the site on my tablet during lunch, and it is pretty easy to fat-finger the ‘expand’ button and hit one of the (stupid) social media thingies…
i know its a first-world problemo, but it sucks for this first-worlder…
just sayin’…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: you forgot the /sarc flag

The political spectrum has been pushed to the right so much that what was once conservative is now liberal and what is now conservative is batshit crazy.

There are many who have no idea what liberal means other than “it’s not what I think”. Whether it is a centrist (or liberal in “today speak”) or a conservative does not seem to matter much anymore as the result for the common folk is the same. This has a lot to do with the method in which politicians obtain financing for their campaigns, rather than ask their constituents they suck up to the corporate and mega rich who have no idea what they are doing. See that hole you just blew in your foot? – Yeah, that’s going to hurt for some time.

An entire generation has been thrown to the wolves and most of our esteemed “leaders” do not give a shit, after all it does not affect them – right? Well, it does – they are just too ignorant to see it.

I have a bad feeling about this.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is what they want

The voters still keep voting those clowns in.

I have now moved to the point of, people seem to really want it this way. Sure they run some mouth about it from time to time, but at the end of the day, they still eat their high sugar manufactured diet right after injecting themselves with insulin. The next morning they get up and vote for the idiot fucking them over.

Truly, nothing is new under the sun.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This is what they want

Many voters decide based upon personality rather than issues, or single issue at best. Those who attain office based upon single issues usually disappoint. After all, they have no obligation. They hope the whole thing will blow over and the people will forget. Fat chance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: This is what they want

I think we all just pretty much said we keep fucking ourselves here!

Maybe we should put some qualifiers on voting.

Like maybe a quick test you have to take before your vote gets to count, maybe a test like this one here?

What form of Democracy is the USA?
Please solve x. 99 – x = 57
Who is the Governor of your state?

If they don’t call bs on the first ?, or get 2 wrong, or fail to list their own governor… we really do not need these people voting. And it all needs to be in fucking English. People that cannot speak the language have no fucking clue what is going on to begin with!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: This is what they want

We both know that is not the problem.

The problem is that we voters keep sending the message that putting these fucking idiots in front of us works.

If everyone would write in Bozo the Clown instead of checking a candidate the message would get real fucking clear real fucking quick. The problem has always been the same, stupid fucking low information voters suckered into the party system voting process and refusing to part from it in their terror.

Faraway Observer says:

AT&T is anything but dumb

Guys, AT&T’s lobbying apparatus is definitely not running on autopilot.

First you get rid of all of the connectivity options with high or no caps, up to and including your own, profitable, product. Part and parcel of this strategy is preventing others from introducing products with high or no caps.

Second, you introduce a connectivity option that has super low caps, but virtually mandatory for end-users because it’s the only one available.

Third, you introduce your own subscription-based content service, delivered over the only connectivity option users have… and exempt it from the caps.

The end result is AT&T monetizing the pipe, the advertising, and the content. All to itself, effectively no third-party content providers like Netflix allowed. This is absolutely AT&T’s long-term strategy.

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