Comcast Sues Vermont, Insists Having To Expand Broadband Violates Its First Amendment Rights
from the defenders-of-the-status-quo dept
So you may have noticed this already, but giant telecom conglomerates don’t much like having to upgrade their networks, especially in lower ROI areas. And while that’s understandable from a purely-financial perspective, this practice is creating some major, notable broadband deployment holes where poor people tend to live. With telcos specifically refusing to upgrade lagging DSL networks at any real scale, that’s also creating an emboldened cable broadband monopoly in many areas. That by proxy keeps prices high, speeds low, and allows the introduction of things like bullshit usage caps and overage fees.
By and large, localized efforts to do something about this generally run face-first into brick walls, thanks in large part to the almost comical stranglehold most ISPs have over state legislatures and regional telecom regulators. In many instances this culminates in ISPs not only refusing to expand their networks into under-served areas, but quite literally writing protectionist state laws to make sure nobody else can, either. This cake and eat it too mentality persists in countless states that have prioritized campaign contributions from the likes of AT&T and Comcast over the general welfare of their public constituents.
Despite the broadband industry consistently whining about “burdensome regulation,” the reality is there’s little to nothing passing for real oversight in many of these areas, and the regulation that is written — is often focused primarily on protecting these duopolies’ uncompetitive geographical fiefdoms. In Vermont, the Vermont Public Utility Commission (VPUC) recently tried to buck this trend by including provisions in Comcast’s 11 year permit (pdf) with the state requiring it to not only retain public access programming in the state, but expand “no less than” 550 miles of additional cable into under-served Vermont communities over 11 years.
To be clear, deploying that much cable over more than a decade is a pittance to a company that sees $21 billion in quarterly revenues. But instead, Comcast decided to sue the state, claiming that doing this extra work violates the company’s First Amendment rights:
The VPUC claimed that it could impose the blanket 550-mile line extension mandate on Comcast because it is the “largest” cable operator in Vermont and can afford it. These discriminatory conditions contravene federal and state law, amount to undue speaker-based burdens on Comcast’s protected speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution… and deprive Comcast and its subscribers of the benefits of Vermont law enjoyed by other cable operators and their subscribers without a just and rational basis, in violation of the Common Benefits Clause of the Vermont Constitution.
ISPs love to trot out the First Amendment complaint wherever and whenever possible, similarly insisting that net neutrality protections somehow curtail their free speech rights (arguments that traditionally don’t see much traction in the courts). But Comcast is also busy telling local Vermont news outlets that it’s spending money on lawyers instead of more cable because it’s just really worried about how much Vermont residents pay for broadband and TV service:
Comcast declined to talk about the case. But in a written statement company spokeswoman Kristen Roberts said the new state permit would, “cost millions of dollars, place discriminatory burdens on Comcast and its customers, and arbitrarily increase their costs for cable service.
While that’s very sweet of Comcast, the fact is that Comcast enjoys an effective monopoly over broadband in countless areas; the closest it comes to competition in Vermont being a relatively pathetic telco by the name of Fairpoint Communications. Fairpoint acquired Verizon’s unwanted DSL networks in the state several years back, bungled the acquisition, stumbled into bankruptcy, and struggles to offer 3 to 6 Mbps DSL across wide swaths of the state. This is, again, thanks to a generation of lawmakers and regulators that have effectively allowed giant duopolists to write state (and often federal) telecom law.
In a working, competitive market, Comcast wouldn’t need to be prodded and cajoled by the state to actually upgrade and expand its network. But there’s simply no organic market pressure forcing Comcast’s hand because the U.S. telecom market is painfully, obviously broken. As a result, there has been a growing push to explore more creative public/private partnerships to help bring connectivity to long-neglected areas. But Comcast consistently supports laws hamstringing those efforts too, allowing Comcast to have its cake (not deploy broadband) and eat it too (erecting regulatory barriers preventing others from doing so either).