Why The Hell Are States Still Passing ISP-Written Laws Banning Community Broadband?

from the ill-communication dept

We’ve long talked about the more than 750 towns, cities, and counties that have responded to US broadband market failure by building their own broadband networks. We’ve also talked at length about how data has shown these networks often offer better service at lower, more transparent prices than their purely private sector counterparts (usually natural monopolies), whose apathy and political power has only grown in the wake of limited competition.

We’ve also talked at great length about how instead of derailing these efforts by offering better, cheaper service (aka competition), industry giants like AT&T and Comcast have found a cheaper solution: they’ve quite literally paid state lawmakers to pass protectionist laws in dozens of states that ban or hinder towns and cities from even exploring the option. These bills are widely opposed by the public, but a new study says the phenomenon is growing all the same:

“A new report has found that 26 states now either restrict or outright prohibit towns and cities from building their own broadband networks. Quite often the laws are directly written by the telecom sector, and in some instances ban towns and cities from building their own broadband networks?even if the local ISP refuses to provide service.

The full report by BroadbandNow, a consumer-focused company that tracks US broadband availability, indicates the total number of state restrictions on community broadband has jumped from 20 such restrictions since the group?s last report in 2018.

So why are these bills expanding if they’re so unpopular among the public? Because they’re often shoveled through the legislative process in an underhanded manner, like AT&T did when it tried to pass community-broadband killing rules into an unrelated Missouri traffic bill. Most of the time though, ISPs simply write these bills in cooperation with ALEC, who then shovels the legislation on to financially-compromised lawmakers who are happy to pass the bills with little real fact check or debate.

Sometimes the bills ban such networks outright, other times they more cleverly restrict how and where such projects can be funded or grow, something experienced by Chattanooga’s utility-run EPB:

“In Tennessee, for example, state laws allow publicly-owned electric utilities to provide broadband, ?but limits that service provision to within their electric service areas.? Such restrictions have made it hard for EPB?the highest rated ISP in America last year according to Consumer Reports?to expand service into new areas.

?During the 2017 legislative session, a bill considered by state lawmakers would have enabled municipalities to expand broadband infrastructure to residents,? the report notes. ?Instead, lawmakers passed a bill that offers $45 million in subsidies to private Internet service providers to build the same infrastructure.”

ISP lobbyists, loyal lawmakers, and the ocean of dollar per holler consultant, academics, and think tankers they employ have spent years trying to vilify these community broadband efforts as guaranteed taxpayer-funded boondoggles. But such efforts are like any business plan and highly dependent on the competency of the crafter and the underlying business model. These criticisms also ignore that US telecom ideology has generally focused at throwing unchecked billions at private monopolies who then fail repeatedly to actually deploy the fiber they promise, which actually is a taxpayer-funded boondoggle.

Even if you’re opposed to your town or city getting into the broadband business, that doesn’t mean Comcast and AT&T lobbyists should be pushing laws that quite literally strip away your democratic right to decide local infrastructure issues for yourself. That’s a concept that’s grotesque across political and economic ideologies. It’s pure protectionism, and a violation of local democratic rights.

We’ve noted repeatedly how these towns and cities aren’t getting into the broadband business because they’re “socialists” or because they think it’s fun. They’re doing it because of decades of market failure, leading to historically awful customer service, sky high prices, slow speeds, and patchy availability. US broadband is a web of dysfunction thanks to growing natural cable broadband monopolies, corruption, and regulatory capture. Letting natural monopolies literally write protectionist laws banning creative, local, niche solutions only makes the over-arching problem that much worse. And yet here we are.

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Comments on “Why The Hell Are States Still Passing ISP-Written Laws Banning Community Broadband?”

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Amos says:

Re: Re: Re: due to corruption

TD here clearly attributes the basic problem to "Market Failure".

You attribute it to government corruption.

Others attribute it to stupid voters.

If "26 states {governments} now either restrict or outright prohibit towns and cities from building their own broadband networks" — that sounds an awful lot like "Government Failure" — which is how the current major ISP’s achieved artificial Broadband dominance in the first place.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 due to corruption

Corruption is everywhere but mostly in politics, it causes failure of both government & industry. Corruption has enabled the disenfranchisement of many minorities and the poor, thus allowing the corrupt individuals to continue in their nefarious ways.

The root cause is human imperfections.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Why are voters not unelecting those who do this?

A variety of complicated reasons, some of which other posters have already mentioned: sometimes it’s due to partisanship; sometimes it’s because no candidate is available who is opposed to the ISP ban; sometimes it’s because voters just don’t plain know about this legislation or don’t know who voted for it. Sometimes it’s because, while voters don’t like a candidate’s position on banning community broadband, they do like that candidate’s positions on other issues.

Sometimes it’s because the legislation is passed in a confusing and underhanded way; the article mentions that Missouri sneaking a muni ISP ban into a traffic bill. In that circumstance, how can you tell which candidates voted for the bill because they’re opposed to municipal broadband, and which ones just wanted the traffic-related provisions in it (and perhaps weren’t aware of the ramifications of a muni ISP ban snuck in at the last minute, or perhaps understood those implications but felt it was important to pass the traffic bill and held their nose knowing that there was a provision of the bill they didn’t like)?

For the record, I’m sure if you went over the roll calls for these votes, you would find that some of the people who’ve voted for these bans have in fact been defeated in their reelection bids (we don’t generally call that being "unelected", but I suppose it applies).

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Or

Why, through the last 3 years of trumpeting the FCC, did you think the government would preserve internet freedom vs. co-opt it?

Fun fact: there isn’t just one "the government" in the United States. The clue is in the name: United States. Note the s at the end, which in this instance indicates a plural; it means that there is more than one state.

In addition to a central government, we also have fifty individual state governments (as well as various territorial and municipal governments). This is called federalism.

The FCC is a part of the federal government. This article is about state governments. They’re not the same thing. In fact, there are many state governments that have not passed legislation banning municipal ISP. While the headline on this story is "Why The Hell Are States Still Passing ISP-Written Laws Banning Community Broadband?" and you may find that confusing, it does not actually mean that all states are doing this.

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