As COVID Highlights U.S. Broadband Failures, State Bans On Community Broadband Look Dumber Than Ever
from the get-out-of-the-way dept
We’ve noted for fifteen-plus years how entrenched telecom monopolies literally write state telecom laws that ban towns and cities from building their own broadband networks. Even in cases where incumbent monopolies refuse to deploy service. This has gone hand-in-hand with endless (and false) claims that community-run broadband networks are are some kind of vile socialist boondoggle. In reality, data shows these home-grown networks routinely offer faster, cheaper, and better service, in large part because they’re run by folks with an active, vested interest in (and direct accountability to) the communities they operate in.
That’s not to say community-run broadband networks are some mystical panacea, or the answer to the broadband problem in all markets. But it is a successful niche solution for areas out of reach of broadband, and it can help drive competition to markets neglected by incumbents like AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast. As COVID and remote learning/working further highlights the sorry state of U.S. broadband, it’s been interesting to watch a steady shift in awareness that just maybe letting giant telecom monopolies write state law to stifle creative broadband alternatives wasn’t a good idea.
Fixing the “broadband digital divide” will require a huge array of different options. Case in point: Springfield, Missouri is building a fiber optic network for the city, and struck a public/private partnership with CenturyLink which will then lease access on the network. The result: better, faster, cheaper service.
“Last year, the city announced a public-private partnership with internet service provider CenturyLink to expand broadband access. Springfield is building its own fiber-optic network, which uses light signals to provide faster internet speeds than standard copper wire networks?a significant step up in the broadband quality available to many residents. CenturyLink will lease bandwidth on the network, and take over the day-to-day business of selling high-speed internet to residents.
Before the partnership, CenturyLink, which has lobbied against municipal broadband networks, didn?t have plans to expand to Springfield. It would have required a risky infrastructure investment in a market with established competitors, AT&T and Mediacom. Now, Springfield doesn?t have to wait for a private company to decide it would be profitable to install a fiber optic network for every resident?the city built the network as a public service, and then induced an internet service provider to come run it.”
Granted many ISP-backed state laws block public/private partnerships as well. And CenturyLink’s lobbyists have played a starring role in pushing these laws for the better part of two decades. In Missouri, AT&T once tried to bury provisions hamstringing community broadband into an unrelated traffic ordinance. This kind of stuff, in addition to an endless wave of costly industry lawsuits, often saddles these projects with numerous legal and financial burdens.
When these networks (sometimes) then struggle, the telecom sector employs an army of consultants, academics, and think tankers to then celebrate a failure they directly contributed to. From there, they try to (falsely) argue that such projects are a guaranteed taxpayer funded fiasco. In reality, the only real goal is to protect incumbent monopolies from competition, change, or creative innovation. It’s a dumb cycle of bad faith and corrupt dysfunction that has helped derail broadband progress in this country for the better part of two decades.
But as COVID-19 drives home the fact that broadband is essential for survival, I’m starting to see the effectiveness of the industry’s arguments in this arena fall short. And as Congress is pressured to take broader action, and begins asking questions about why we’ve spent billions in monopoly subsidization for networks routinely only half deployed, industry-written state laws hamstringing competition will only get harder to pass, defend, or justify.