70% Support Letting Cities Build Their Own Broadband Networks, So Why Are We Still Passing State Laws Banning It?

from the state-government-for-sale dept

For years we’ve noted how more than twenty states have passed laws — often quite literally written by ISP lobbyists — that prevent towns and cities from building their own broadband networks (either alone, or with a private partner). Even in instances where, as is often the case, the incumbent broadband provider refuses to upgrade them. ISP lobbyists (and the lawmakers that love them) usually try to defend these protectionist laws by first demonizing municipal broadband as some kind of vile socialist cabal, then pretending new state laws are necessary to protect local communities from themselves.

In reality, municipal broadband is an organic, grassroots reaction to broadband market failure. And buying laws that restrict local communities’ rights to decide local infrastructure matters for themselves is little more than regulatory capture. Like net neutrality and privacy rights, municipal broadband actually has broad, bipartisan support — and most municipal broadband networks are built in Conservative markets with local voter support. But by framing the issue in a partisan way (government run amok!), ISP lobbyists have been able to sow dissent and stall progress that could challenge their status quo.

A new survey of 4,000 consumers by the Pew Research Project once again drives that point home, highlighting that 70% of Americans support letting towns and cities build their own broadband networks — if they’re not getting decent service by the regional incumbent:

“A substantial majority of the public (70%) believes local governments should be able to build their own broadband networks if existing services in the area are either too expensive or not good enough, according to the survey, conducted March 13-27. Just 27% of U.S. adults say these so-called municipal broadband networks should not be allowed. (A number of state laws currently prevent cities from building their own high-speed networks, and several U.S. senators recently introduced a bill that would ban these restrictions.)”

That said, partisan lines are far more stark when it comes to support for subsidizing broadband to low-income areas:

“At the same time, fewer than half of Americans (44%) think the government should provide subsidies to help lower-income Americans pay for high-speed internet at home. A larger share (54%) says high-speed home internet service is affordable enough that nearly every household should be able to buy service on its own.”

Partisan battle lines are also quite notable when it comes to asking consumers if they think broadband is essential versus just kind of important (in part because if you admit broadband is “essential,” then you need to do something about it — and that might cost taxpayer dollars):

“Republicans and Democrats tend to agree that broadband is important, but Democrats are more likely to say it is essential: 58% of Democrats and Democratic leaners describe broadband in this way, compared with 38% of Republicans and Republican leaners. A similar split is evident by race and ethnicity, with blacks (55%) and Hispanics (61%) more likely than whites (45%) to say that high-speed access at home is essential.”

That dissent is certainly understandable, given how easy it has been for companies like Verizon to nab billions in tax breaks and subsidies for jobs half-completed. There’s also a laundry list of states like West Virginia, where regional incumbents received millions in well-intentioned subsidies — only to turn around and waste that money on projects that helped virtually nobody. While some skepticism is warranted, there are countless instances where broadband subsidies did precisely what they were designed to do — without much (if any) fanfare.

But again, it’s interesting how municipal broadband tends to smash through these well-worn partisan grooves many of us dig into the earth. In large part because if there’s one thing that we can all agree on — it’s that companies like Comcast and AT&T kind of suck, and dealing with their utterly abysmal customer support is a unifying, albeit miserable, experience. So then, too, is sticking it to these giant, lumbering, apathetic, and uncompetitive sector giants, and building a local, more accountable network operator where the money — and employment — actually remains in the local community.

The problem usually winds up being how to pay for it. Consumers may support the idea of municipal broadband and want to protect their right to vote for or against it, but many don’t want to pay for it. That’s why we’re seeing more public/private partnerships between cities and companies like Google or Tucows/Ting. The problem, again: state laws bought by large ISPs often ban or hamstring public/private partnerships as well to help keep local competition at bay.

Despite the broad support for municipal broadband, states continue to sell state telecom law to the highest bidder. AT&T convinced Missouri to pass a law earlier this year expanding restrictions on municipal broadband — after the telco failed to bury a restricting provision into a state traffic bill. Virginia tried to similarly expand its ban on municipal broadband, but lawmakers there were forced to retreat after they took a notable beating from the press and public.

As we’ve long noted, one surefire way to prevent towns and cities from getting into the broadband business is to provide cheaper, better service. But it has long been significantly easier to just buy a state lawmaker and protectionist law to protect the dysfunctional status quo. And like so many issues facing America, until we at least marginally address money’s influence on politics — and/or drive a higher turnout during state elections, little if any of this is going to change.

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Comments on “70% Support Letting Cities Build Their Own Broadband Networks, So Why Are We Still Passing State Laws Banning It?”

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NeghVar (profile) says:

Re: Re: Bribery

And often a response to such a question is, then why do you elect them? Vote them out. That is easier said than done. Not everyone has the personality or character to be a politician. If an unknown, grassroots person decided run against an incumbent who is highly funded by big telcom. They’ll spend millions to hire organizations to dig up or fabricate dirt on you for character assassination. You end up spending everything to defend yourself instead of getting your message across to the people.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Bribery

Vote them out. That is easier said than done.

Having just been to a third stage interview for a company that advises congress critters on how to draw district lines, the phase "voters don’t pick their representatives, representatives pick their voters" was starkly highlighted once I understood exactly what the focus of the work was.

The system isn’t just rigged, it’s handcuffed, koshed over the head, crammed into a barrel, thrown over board with a few nice chucks of concrete, and just to make sure, sprayed with machine gun bullets.

The hell of it is that both parties do this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Bribery

“The question is “Why are the telcos writing our laws?””

Because we ASKED them to do so.

When you ask for “regulation” the first thing and ignorant government lackey is going to do is walk right into the business they intend to regulation and “learn” about it.

There is just exactly no chance of subterfuge, bribery, wink wink, nudge nudge will happen… right?

There is a reason that government needs to stay out of regulation as much as possible, because it is impossible for them to do it effectively, notice I did not say improbable, I stated impossible. The idea that just because you now have a politician with their regulations calling the shots that you can now somehow be saved from corruption or monopolies is naivety of a significance that requires formulation by nothing other than cognitive dissonance.

What magical force in existence prevents a politician from screwing you over the same way a free market capitalist can? None, that’s what. Regulation is just asking for the same evil just with more power and wearing a different name.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Bribery

that’s funny, I thought I did just explain it.

If you still are not getting it, then I guess someone is going to have to keep talking in your ear until you do get it.

Meanwhile… enjoy those monopolies you keep ASKING for while saying you didn’t. The fruits of your labors betray the words that come out of your mouth, in other words.

JD says:

"Telecom policy experience"

When my state was considering a law to backdoor-ban municipal broadband, I found out my state representative was a former Verizon lobbyist. So shock of shocks he supported it.

I called his office and politely explained to the receptionist that I saw that [bill XYZ] was up for a vote in the House and please put me down for opposing it. The receptionist transferred me to his legislative assistant (probably a local 20-something poli-sci grad who was working there as a stepping stone). She calmly and condescendingly said that I was probably only calling because of the news coverage about the bill, and that the text of the bill was being misrepresented. She then said that my representative actually had "significant telecom policy experience" and that gave him a good understanding of the policy implications.

I pointed out several, very specific sections of the bill (e.g., municipalities had tight windows in which to file requests to build out a network, had to get expensive third-party audits of their plans, only had one shot to go through this process every several years, etc, etc) which were not beneficial to the public, and asked why he supported those. After a few minutes she finally copped to the fact that she hadn’t read the bill. I said that the press releases her boss were putting out weren’t very good, and they were misrepresenting the bill, and it might help to look over the text. I also said I was aware of his "significant telecom policy experience" and that in this case it might be causing him to not work in the best interests of his constituents.

I said that I’d be more than happy to put some of my concerns in writing, and would like to learn more about why my rep supported this anti-competitive provisions. She said sure, took my info, and said "thank you" when I emailed a few detailed bullet points about my concerns.

I never heard back from him. Shocking, I’m sure.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Really?!

“It only surprises me when legislation is passed than BENEFITS voters, instead of Big Telecomm.”

Exactly, this is the subterfuge of regulation. They are designed to “appear” to benefit the voter without a benefit of any kind, or at least give a politician an excuse to lie to you about doing something you wanted.

Take Wheeler and zero rating, a lot of people here liked Wheeler despite really doing nothing.

I would say the difference between Wheeler and Pai is…
Pai is straight forward when he says, I want to fuck you!
Wheeler, prefers the surprise fuck… he will whisper sweet nothings in your ear and before you know it… wham… a big huge regulatory cock, called Zero Rating, is up your ass!

I would prefer the absolute demolition of the FCC.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What if?

“If the public understood the issue, that is what could make a difference in the voting.”

If the public understood anything we would have radically different voting going on.

I remember something somewhere making it clear that this is one of the reasons a Democracy will not survive. When you have a bunch of clueless and politically charge idiots running around….

Well you get what we have right now!

My_Name_Here says:

The simple fact is that the American people elected a reality TV star and often failed business man to run the country. So many of those people are shocked to find out that he’s not very good.

The idea of muni broadband is the same. Sounds great, until you realize that this would be a service run by the same people who take 6 months to replace a burned out street light. That’s not to forget the bond issues, expenses, over runs, graft, and corruption at all levels that would come into play on a municipal contract.

Without understanding or considering the implications, people wants lots of things. If they knew the implications and the costs, they might have a different opinion!

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Someone should put the data to work.

Representatives allegedly represent people so that = P
Corps pay money to get their way at the expense of people = M

P/M = X where X is how little it cost your leaders to decide that corporations enjoying record profits for delivering some of the shittist service in the developed world needed protection.

Some people would be ashamed to know how little it cost to be sold out like this… in most cases it wasn’t even half of their monthly bill.

Chuck says:

Isn't it obvious?

You ask why, if 70% support these public muni networks, we still outlaw them?

Simple: because you can get 70% of the public to outlaw themselves if you phrase it as “protecting the children” or “the good, Christian thing to do” or “better for small business.” Given the right motive, people will outlaw their own mothers in this country. Nobody wants to be seen as anti-child or anti-God or anti-small-business!

The only thing worse than not being a voter is being a poorly-informed voter. America is full of them. I should know – I live in Alabama and I’m surrounded by them on all sides!

I mean, seriously, it’s VERY obvious why people would do this.

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