After North Carolina Law Bans Municipal Broadband, One ISP Gives Gigabit Connections Away
from the shooting-yourself-in-the-foot dept
Back in August, we noted how the FCC lost an incredibly important case regarding municipal broadband. In short, the FCC tried to dismantle state-level protectionist laws, written by incumbent ISPs, that hamstring towns and cities from building their own broadband networks or striking public/private partnerships for broadband — even in areas those same incumbent ISPs refused to upgrade. The FCC had tried to claim that its congressional mandate to ensure “even and timely” broadband deployment allowed it to strip away any part of these laws that hindered broadband expansion.
But the courts argued that the FCC lacks this authority, forcing the agency to acknowledge it was giving up on this fight. But there are still countless municipal broadband providers in the 19 states that have passed these laws that can’t launch or expand existing service lest they run face-first into a law written by Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, or CenturyLink lawyers. And there are millions of customers that are incredibly frustrated by the lack of broadband market competition, resulting in the expensive, inconsistent broadband connections most of us “enjoy” today.
In North Carolina, it took Time Warner Cable four attempts to convince the state legislature to pass such a protectionist law. The FCC’s failure to dismantle this law resulted in one municipal ISP, Greenlight, facing the specter of having to disconnect customers in a neighboring county given the ban on selling municipal broadband. In response, the ISP has decided not to sell broadband to these neighbors at all, instead announcing this week that it would be giving away gigabit service for free until it can figure out what to do next:
“Wilson officials voted Thursday to provide free Greenlight Community Broadband services to existing customers outside the county on a limited basis until efforts are successful in overturning the law that prohibits fee-based municipal broadband beyond the county line.
?While the short-term fix is not perfect, it was the only alternative we had to disconnecting our neighbors,? said Wilson Mayor Bruce Rose. ?Taking broadband service from the people of Pinetops would have been a terrible blow, especially when they are still recovering from Hurricane Matthew.”
And while that’s quite a feel good story and a nice move by Greenlight, the reality is there’s nobody coming to the rescue of these states any time soon in the wake of the FCC’s loss. Incumbent telecom providers have such a stranglehold over state legislatures, they’re being allowed to quite literally write the law. In most instances, the states that pass these laws wind up being among the least connected and competitive broadband states in the union. That leaves the only solution being to vote these beholden lawmakers out of office.
The problem is that ISPs have historically been successful in framing this as a partisan issue, one in which the mean ol’ government is competing unfairly with the innocent daisies in private industry. This narrative usually involves framing all municipal broadband efforts as unmitigated financial disasters, while trying to claim these laws are necessary to protect poor, naive citizens from themselves. As such efforts in Congress to pass new laws banning state protectionist laws have consistently been scuttled, in part thanks to a public voter base that has been tricked into rooting against its own best self-interest.
The reality however is that this isn’t a partisan issue at all. In fact, most municipal broadband networks are being built in Conservative areas with the support of Conservative voters. As these voters grow more and more disenfranchised by the existing duopoly status quo, it’s getting harder and harder to convince them that letting AT&T, Verizon and Comcast buy protectionist, anti-competitive state law is perfectly fine, while building local, better broadband networks that dramatically improve local quality of life is the very worst sort of villainy.