New Protectionist Virginia Law Would Keep Residents From Better Broadband
from the state-legislatures-for-sale dept
For years now we’ve noted how incumbent ISPs have written and purchased protectionist state laws in roughly twenty states. These laws were quietly passed by AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and other large ISPs as a response to communities that began considering building their own broadband networks. Granted these efforts only emerged because these communities were frustrated by the lack of competition, poor service, and high prices (aka market failure). Instead of shoring up service and competing, these ISPs found it more economical to simply buy legislation overriding local community rights.
Virginia is just the latest state to happily do the bidding of incumbent telecom giants with a new proposal that would hamstring towns and cities with all manner of restrictions should they decide to build their own networks, or strike a public/private partnership to that same end.
House lawmaker Kathy Byron has crafted the “Virginia Broadband Deployment Act” after receiving healthy campaign contributions from ISPs like Verizon and AT&T. But her proposal actually restricts broadband deployment — or public/private partnerships like Google Fiber — by preventing towns and cities from building networks if incumbent ISPs offer speeds of just 10 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up across 90% of their footprints:
…a locality wouldn’t be allowed to offer Internet service if an existing network already provides 10Mbps download and 1Mbps upload speeds to 90 percent of potential customers. That speed threshold is low enough that it can be met by old DSL lines in areas that haven’t received more modern cable and fiber networks.
Of course, because expensive, last-generation DSL and pricey satellite broadband service already likely meet that metric in Virginia, this is effectively a ban on all community broadband — without the bill’s authors having to overtly admit that’s what they’re doing. But in addition to that restriction, the law would saddle any new municipal broadband project with all manner of logistical caveats, while giving ISPs ample ammunition to sue and cajole any effort that makes it past this first hurdle:
Moreover, the legislation would give private ISPs grounds to challenge municipal broadband projects in court. Local governments seeking to offer broadband would have to file various documents with the state Broadband Advisory Council at least 120 days before construction and “an annual certification by July 1 of each year that any expansion to or changes in its projects or system since the preceding July 1 still qualify as broadband expansion services.”
“Any person who believes that any part of such filings is incomplete, incorrect, or false and who is in the business of providing Internet services within the locality shall have standing to bring an action in the circuit court for the locality to seek to require the locality to either comply with the substantive and procedural content of the filings required by this section, or cease to provide services, and no bond shall be required for injunctive relief against the locality,” the legislation says.
Many municipal broadband providers are sued right out of the gate by incumbent broadband providers. After the lawsuits inevitably raise project costs and delay timelines, those same ISPs come in and use these struggles as proof positive that community broadband is the pinnacle of dysfunction. Not too surprisingly, Virginia’s bill is being heavily promoted by the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association, which, like most telecom lobbying arms, implies they’re just nobly trying to protect taxpayers from themselves:
The VCTA believes that the General Assembly should debate and establish a state policy to determine if local governments should be risking public dollars to build duplicative networks competing with the private sector that it also regulates, taxes and serves as the gatekeeper to the rights of way used to deploy broadband.
This idea that all municipal broadband deployments are automatically failures — and that taxpayers need protection from themselves — is a fairly standard argument from telecom industry lobbyists. But municipal broadband deployments are just business plans, and like any business plans — some are good — and some aren’t. As such, poorly planned networks fail, and well-designed proposals succeed. But there’s nothing automatically calamitous about community broadband; it’s simply an organic local response to market failure in the broadband space.
These bills have been successful in large part because ISP lobbyists have managed to frame municipal broadband as a partisan issue, intentionally sowing division. But the majority of such networks are built in Conservative cities and states and have broad, bipartisan consumer support (hating Comcast is pretty damn near universal). The reality remains that if ISPs really wanted to kill municipal broadband, they simply have to do a better job. But again, it’s much more efficient to buy state laws protecting your stranglehold over a failing market, than to actually stand up and deliver the kind of better service broadband consumers have been demanding for fifteen years.