Michigan Lawmaker Doesn't Understand Her Own Bill Hamstringing Broadband Competition
from the best-leadership-money-can-buy dept
For the better part of a decade we’ve noted how if America really wanted to improve its horrible broadband problem it would stop letting industry giants like Comcast write shitty protectionist state telecom law. Over the last fifteen years, more than twenty states have passed laws preventing towns and cities from building their own broadband networks even when no incumbent broadband provider will. In many instances these bills also hamstring public/private partnerships, which are often the only way to creatively bring better broadband to under-served or unserved areas of the country.
Michigan is the latest to highlight this problem. Freshman Representative Michele Hoitenga this month introduced HB 5099, a bill that would make it difficult if not impossible for local towns and cities to build their own broadband networks. The bill would ban towns and cities from using taxpayer funds to improve local telecom infrastructure. According to the Institute for Local Reliance, an organization that fights these protectionist measures and helps municipalities improve broadband coverage, the bill would also deter towns and cities from striking public/private partnerships with the likes of Google Fiber:
“The exception allows local communities to engage in public-private partnerships, but the bill?s ambiguous language is likely to discourage local communities from pursuing such partnerships…Rather than put themselves at risk of running afoul of the law, prudent community leaders would probably choose to avoid pursuing any publicly owned infrastructure initiatives.
ISPs defend these bills by insisting they’re just really concerned about wasting tax dollars (despite historically wasting far more taxpayer money than potentially any other industry in America). Lobbyists and hired telecom policy hacks have spent fifteen years demonizing all municipal broadband projects as boondoggles. In reality, their goal is to protect regional duopolies from anything even closely resembling real broadband competition by ghost writing awful state law. They want their cake and to eat it too: they refuse to offer quality service or upgrade their networks, but they want government to prevent anybody else from doing so either.
In reality, municipal broadband networks are like any other business plan. Some are good, some are bad, and all are highly dependent on the particulars of a region. But it should be up to local voters and the towns and cities themselves to make that determination — not AT&T and Comcast lobbyists and hired policy flacks sitting half a world away.
As people have grown more frustrated with shitty broadband, bipartisan opposition to these kinds of bills has only grown. After all, disdain for Comcast and its abysmal customer service is one of only a few things that can truly bridge partisan divides. Most people seem to realize we need to get creative to compensate for ISPs that feel fully deploying broadband networks (especially to rural markets and the poor) isn’t worth the time and money. As a result, Hoitenga this week began facing some notable blowback on Twitter (you really should read this entire exchange while it still exists) for her proposal.
Hoitenga quickly made it clear she doesn’t actually understand the proposal she’s supporting. For example, while her bill would take rights away from local voters by hamstringing how they can fund their own local infrastructure, she insisted she was somehow protecting voting rights:
Hoitenga then proceeded to display her profound misunderstanding of the broadband market by insisting municipal broadband networks aren’t really necessary, because Michigan voters somehow have access to 37 different competing broadband providers:
How did the lawmaker come to this conclusion? Bing (yes, Bing!) apparently told her so. While most people usually have the choice of only one or two broadband providers that barely compete with each other, the lawmaker posted a screenshot in the bizarre belief she was contradicting this reality:
Of course, if you actually visit the page that she saw in her Bing search, it tells, well, a very very different story. It’s useful, first, to scroll to the bottom to look at the actual map of Holland, which shows how many providers are where.
Note that most of Holland has only 2 or 3 providers. Not 37. Again, this is from the very link she claims supports her “37 providers” claim. And, of course, if you look at the details of where that “37” number came from, you’ll quickly understand why it’s bogus. First, it includes wireless and business-only broadband providers. That’s totally unrelated to the residential market. Second, it counts different kinds of broadband from the same company (e.g. “DSL” and “fiber”) as a separate provider, despite clearly being the same. Finally, and most importantly (and obviously from the map above) it ignores that the vast majority of these providers cover very, very little of the city of the city — to the point that they’re barely offering service in the city at all. Below are the residential offerings, and if you focus on that “availability” column, you’ll note that most of them cover well less than 5% and a bunch are around 1%.
At most you could argue people would likely have a choice of 3 providers in their location. And one of them — TDS DSL — is apparently limited to 4mbps which, you know, is not broadband according to the very definition provided by the FCC. And, how can we not mention the “customer ratings” column? The whole point here, and the very reason why so many people are clamoring for competition from municipal broadband, is because they hate their expensive, crappy, limited choices.
The biggest problem here however is that these bills are usually quite literally written by incumbent ISPs, then shoveled through the legislative process via organizations like ALEC. Said ghost-written legislation then stumbles through approval with lawmakers barely understanding what they’re pushing, which is something we’ve seen time and time again. If ISPs are so opposed to municipal broadband, there’s an easy way to stop these efforts: offer a better, cheaper product and improve their historically-awful customer service.
But in the United States, it’s far easier to ghost write legislation, hand it off to a cash-compromised lawmaker that has no idea what it means, then sit back and enjoy the financial benefits of regulatory capture while America falls farther behind the broadband curve. This really is, as they say, why we can’t have nice things.