West Virginia Tries To Improve Broadband Competition, Incumbent ISPs Immediately Sue
from the this-is-why-we-can't-have-nice-things dept
So by now you’ve probably noticed that the broadband industry is somewhat, well, broken. Unaccountable giant telecom incumbents, with a stranglehold on both federal and state lawmakers, work tirelessly alongside well-compensated lawmakers and covertly paid policy vessels to protect the status quo (read: limited competition, high prices, poor customer service). Often that involves quite literally writing and buying state laws that make it impossible for anybody to do much of anything about this dance of dysfunction.
And when it comes to highlighting the end result of this corruption, there’s no better state than West Virginia. Whereas bigger incumbents in more populated states can often hide their stranglehold over a broken market under layers upon layers of exquisitely crafted bullshit, many West Virginia lawmakers and regional incumbent Frontier Communications lack the savvy and competence to mask what they’re truly up to.
As a result, the state has been awash in controversy over its telecom policies for years now. Local Charleston Gazette reporter Eric Eyre has done yeoman’s work chronicling West Virginia’s immense broadband dysfunction, from the State’s use of broadband stimulus subsidies on unused, overpowered routers and overpaid, redundant consultants, to state leaders’ attempts to bury reports highlighting how a cozy relationship with Frontier has led to what can only be explained as systemic, statewide fraud on the taxpayer dime.
Obviously letting Frontier dictate state telecom policy has resulted in the state being one of the least-connected states in the nation. Facing growing calls to actually do something about it, West Virginia finally recently buckled to pressure and passed House Bill 3093, recently signed into law by West Virginia Governor Jim Justice. The bill makes a number of changes to try and improve regional competition, including streamlining pole attachment reform, and encouraging local broadband community co-ops to shore up coverage in low ROI areas.
We already discussed how Frontier recently fired a long-standing employee for supporting the bill. Said employee’s other job was as West Virginia Senate President, an absurd conflict of interest nobody in the state appears to have given much thought to. But Frontier has subsequently decided that it makes sense to sue the state of West Virginia for the new law, taking specific aim at the segment reforming utility pole fiber attachment rules:
“Frontier Communications has filed a lawsuit to prevent the enforcement of an article of House Bill 3093, known as the broadband bill, arguing that it conflicts with federal law and increases the chances of an interruption or outage for customers.
House Bill 3093?s Article 4 allows third parties, including Frontier?s competitors, to trespass upon, handle, move, interfere with, and potentially damage Frontier?s facilities attached to utility poles in West Virginia ? thereby, among other things, destroying in whole or in part Frontier?s investment and other property and its ability to use its facilities to provide service to its customers, without prior notice to Frontier and an opportunity to protect its property,? the lawsuit says.
We’ve noted how incumbent ISPs have sued to thwart pole attachment reform elsewhere, most notably in places like Louisville and Nashville where Google Fiber is trying to compete with incumbents. Existing pole rules often require each individual ISP move its own gear, resulting in up to a year of bureaucratic delays for new market entrants. Delays incumbent ISPs have historically exploited to intentionally slow competitor arrival to market.
“One touch make ready” reform rules, in contrast, propose using a single, licensed and insured subcontractor able to move any company’s gear provided they give a notable heads up and pay for any potential damages. And while incumbent ISPs like Frontier and many cable providers (who also sued the state for its effort to speed up competition) like to give the impression these subcontractors are random incompetent yahoos who’ll cut lines and wreak havoc, they’re often the same experienced, licensed subscontractors used for years by many of these companies for their own pole work.
It’s believed this boring-sounding utility pole regulatory reform can reduce existing pole attachment times from six months to a year, down to a month or two. But because it would speed up the entrance of would-be competitors, incumbent ISPs have fought the reform tooth and nail. You see, incumbent ISPs talk a big game about their disdain for “burdensome regulation,” but when said regulation protects their regional duopolies, they’re the first in line to applaud. That is when they’re not busy writing and buying protectionist state laws and regulations preventing local communities from making these decisions for themselves.
Frontier’s decision to spend time and money with lawsuits comes as rumors begin to swirl of potential bankruptcy at the company. The company has been bleeding customers after it bundled an expensive acquisition of Verizon’s unwanted networks in Florida, Texas and California, a deal that initially pleased investors with promised growth, but saddled the company with billions in debt, further preventing it from upgrading its network at any scale. Frontier’s apparent solution to this conundrum? Like any myopic, pampered legacy company, it’s to double down on the bad ideas that brought it to this moment in the first place.