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.

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Comments on “New Protectionist Virginia Law Would Keep Residents From Better Broadband”

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19 Comments
Median Wilfred says:

I'm Puzzled

Isn’t this exactly the kind of Red Tape that conservatives go on and on about? Conservatives are always “pro-business” and “free market” when it comes to things concerning their employees, like time off, wages, sick days, etc, but seemly anti-free market otherwise.

It’s almost like conservatives are “pro-feudal” and against general human rights.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I'm Puzzled

A lot of conservatives might be easily duped into voting for these clowns, but don’t make the mistake that they are conservative.

It is like making the mistake of calling Obama a liberal. He simply is nothing of the sort. If a person does something in opposition to their brand, are they really their brand?

Conservatives are actually pro-business and free market, but just like Liberals they are easily duped by lying politicians and business men to support them despite having zero intention of being true to their word.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: I'm Puzzled

Wait, I thought it was clear Trump was no conservative at all. Or are you just trying to go Godwin on me here?

Sure not everyone is 100% anything but if another label fits them better, then use that label instead. Kinda like the difference between left, right, liberal, conservative. They are all different and the one that matches the person MOST is the one you label them with, even if they still claim to be something else.

Judge everyone based on the fruit of their labors, not the words flapping out of their mouth.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 I'm Puzzled

Indeed. I’m conservative and believe that the market would actually be a lot more efficient if it was more free. Allowing a big corporation to capture it is the opposite of that. It’s government’s job to uphold the rule of law and to maintain order. Pseudo-conservative anarchists keep leaving out the part about maintaining order in the name of lowering regulatory barriers to business and “getting the government out of the way.”

Unfortunately, pro-incumbent regulation is a classic example of “the government getting in the way,” but this is at the behest of corporations. We need to stop seeing them as separate entities. These days there’s little difference between them in terms of the regulatory impact they have on our freedom to choose which supplier to use without moving house. Free market, my bum. Open it up and let more competition in.

ShadowNinja (profile) says:

Re: I'm Puzzled

Just put the word ‘freedom’ or ‘right’ in front of something and you get a bunch of politicians willing to back it no matter how anti-freedom and anti-your civil rights it is.

See for example ‘right to work’ which really consists of scrapping employee protections, and ‘religious freedom’ laws that allow businesses to discriminate against you for any reason they can backup by ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’.

Damian Ivereigh (profile) says:

Confused from Australia

Could you guys clear something up for me. In the US is all telco competition at the infrastructure level. I.e. each ISP has to own their own infrastructure (fibre, DSL, wireless)?

So I’m guessing there is no last-mile wholesale market, where one mob installs some last mile infrastructure into a city (say fibre) and then rents space to whichever telco wants to use it and bill the clients. The telco’s would have some handoff point when they pickup the traffic.

I just wonder if that wouldn’t be the solution to all these woes – it’s what the NBN does here (they only do last mile wholesale). That way the infrastructure isn’t duplicated and telco’s get to compete on price and service.

Damian Ivereigh (profile) says:

Re: Re: Confused from Australia

Well I am guessing that someone has the money/will otherwise Google Fibre and any of the “municipal” broadband fibre wouldn’t have been rolled out at all. I just see that this infrastructure competition leads to the other telco’s feeling shut out and they start doing what they know best, which is to stop it rolling out in the first place.

I am wondering if a municipality says that they are rolling out the fibre and any of the other telcos are invited to buy the connections from them (they would only do wholesale). Has anyone tried this?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Confused from Australia

In the US is all telco competition at the infrastructure level. I.e. each ISP has to own their own infrastructure (fibre, DSL, wireless)?

Yes.

So I’m guessing there is no last-mile wholesale market, where one mob installs some last mile infrastructure into a city (say fibre) and then rents space to whichever telco wants to use it and bill the clients.

We tried making the incumbent telcos share their lines with competitors. It failed. The incumbents refused to play nice and the gov’t let them get away with it.

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