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.

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Comments on “As COVID Highlights U.S. Broadband Failures, State Bans On Community Broadband Look Dumber Than Ever”

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xyzzy (profile) says:

Corporatocracy trumps democracy

These cases of blatant corporate control are just one example that democracy in the US is dying, and that it has become the worlds best example of a corporatocracy.

The founders could not have anticipated this, so whereas some safeguards were built in to prevent other corrupted forms of government, such as a theocracies, we seem to have no guards against corporations running the government, especially as the supreme court thinks corporate personhood is a good thing.

I have no idea how this can be reversed, I fear we lost control somewhere along the way, and now it may be too late.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Corporatocracy trumps democracy

Such optimism in these times is refreshing.

Those in power at the moment seem to not pay any attention to those words on paper describing how our government operates, perhaps it is too boring of a read or perhaps they simply do not know how to read, doesn’t matter as the end result is the same garbage heap.

I don’t know that it is democracy dying, but rather the population is communicating better. idk, misinfo spreads faster than real info it seems and there are way too many eagerly believing the most outrageous crap. A theory attempting to explain it postulates that many out there have lead poisoning.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Corporatocracy trumps democracy

"The founders could not have anticipated this"

They did, actually, and there was a lot of back and forth about it in their correspondence, as I understand.

At the time however, they had a lot of admittedly very well founded concerns about mob rule, where direct democracy could be shanghaied by an unscrupulous demagogue influencing a horde of badly educated voters – and so they settled, instead, for a republic shaped to dilute the votes of the citizenry.

What they could not foresee was that in a situation where the vast majority of the citizenry is a well-educated middle class rather than lower class illiterates that system instead opens for a sufficiently persistent minority to perform regulatory capture on the very checks and balances originally intended to keep abuse of the political process in check.

The weimar republic operated under almost exactly the same rules as those the founder envisioned and the result, after a sufficiently long spate of decline, was the third reich, voted in by a mere 12% of the voters in an era so filled with voter apathy a full 70% simply didn’t go to vote at all.

That math is the basis of why republicans are primarily concerned with undermining the credibility of the voting process – they know full well their most rabid minorities (the racists, bigots, and religious zealots) will always vote and aim to give those groups a higher proportional representation by ensuring the pool of non-fanatical rational people is diminished at the polls.

"I have no idea how this can be reversed, I fear we lost control somewhere along the way, and now it may be too late."

Ranked-choice voting implemented in every state and the abolition of the electoral college as a go-between would be a start. But yea, at this point, I don’t think there’s anything left but hoarding shotguns and canned goods while waiting for the pending collapse and the reboot.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Corporatocracy trumps democracy

At the time however, they had a lot of admittedly very well founded concerns about mob rule, where direct democracy could be shanghaied by an unscrupulous demagogue influencing a horde of badly educated voters – and so they settled, instead, for a republic shaped to dilute the votes of the citizenry.

I mean, let’s not mince words here — a lot of the anti-democratic stuff in the Constitution was specifically designed around granting disproportionate influence to slave-owning states.

What they could not foresee was that in a situation where the vast majority of the citizenry is a well-educated middle class rather than lower class illiterates that system instead opens for a sufficiently persistent minority to perform regulatory capture on the very checks and balances originally intended to keep abuse of the political process in check.

I think any eighteenth-century abolitionist could have told you that the Constitution granted a racist southern minority the power to control the direction of the country.

R.H. (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Corporatocracy trumps democracy

I’ve had this discussion with someone else before but, I believe that the three-fifths compromise removed more power from the slave states than it provided. The way I see it, the slave states wanted to count their slaves as full people in order to gain more representation in the House. The free states wanted to only count free people which would have greatly reduced the slave states’ power. The compromise was multiplying the number of non-free people by 60% which provided the slave states’ with some power based on their number of slaves but not all that they wanted.

Concerning the Senate, while I haven’t looked too closely at it, I was always taught that its design was to protect sparsely populated agricultural states from being overridden by the more populated industrial states. I do understand that the Venn diagram of 18th Century American agricultural states and slave states is roughly circular.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Corporatocracy trumps democracy

I’ve had this discussion with someone else before but, I believe that the three-fifths compromise removed more power from the slave states than it provided. The way I see it, the slave states wanted to count their slaves as full people in order to gain more representation in the House. The free states wanted to only count free people which would have greatly reduced the slave states’ power.

Greatly reduced it compared to what?

It only "reduced" the slave states’ representation if you start from the assumption that they were entitled to that representation to begin with.

Kitsune106 says:

I am actually shocked

That the companies are not pushing fro the cities building the infrastructure then coming in to manage. I mean, surely a law saying that they can build but we can lease at low rates, they are responsible for repairs, indeminifiy the company, and upgrades. like how Football teams get cities to build stadiums. some cities are locked into deals that require them to upgrade the stadiums when new tech comes available….

Bruce C. says:

Re: I am actually shocked

Yeah, there are several ways this could still go wrong for the community. OTOH, since they own the fiber, if CenturyLink bails on them, they just need to open a new round of bidding.

A new round of access bidding would also apply if CenturyLink starts pleading poor and demanding lower lease rates. If the cost is really too high, it will be reflected in the bidding.

That leaves a risk of collusion among the ISPs in the area, but there’s only so much that community broadband can accomplish on its own.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I am actually shocked

Sports stadium funding is a huge scam perpetrated upon the unsuspecting public. The NFL and team owners, for example, are not paupers. Other than greed, there is no reason for them to ask for assistance from the public. And the city sells the naming rights to some corporation that had nothing to do with the stadium. If anything, it should be called taxpayer stadium. I doubt such sweetheart deals would be possible without corruption.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re: I am actually shocked

I think at one point in US history, the sports stadiums did have generic names like "Madison Square Garden", "Boston Garden", "Joe Louis Arena", "Chicago Center", but corporate greed took over and now the only arenas in the world that do not have a corporation in their title are Madison Square Garden (because it’s so famous that it can get away with that), the Circus Maximus in Rome because it goes back to the days of the Roman Empire, or the Budokan in Japan (I’m sure there are more, but those are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head).

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: I am actually shocked

There are still plenty of stadiums and arenas that are not corporate names. For a quick example, my baseball team plays in Angel Stadium

Yes, at one point in the past it had a corporate sponsor, but for the majority of my fandom (since mid 70s), it has always been a variation of Angel Stadium or Anaheim Stadium.

And then there is Dodger Stadium, the Los Angeles Coliseum, etc. That’s just in So Cal.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Toom1275 (profile) says:

Re: I am actually shocked

That’s the "Privatize the profit, socialize the cost" recommendation of the FCC’s corporate-shill-stacked Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC)’s draft guidelines (bold added):

Public-Private Models. Municipal officials in Rural municipalities shall evaluate
at least five options for providing Broadband services for feasibility and
sustainability. These are, in order of preference:

4.1. Private-led Investment with Public Assistance. In which a privately-
owned entity constructs, maintains, and operates the Broadband
network, and the municipality assists by facilitating permitting, granting,
and customer sign-ups and ensures that the Broadband service is not
discriminatory in its service standards or areas served.

4.2. Balanced Public-Private Partnerships. In which a Rural municipality provides all or some of the necessary capital funds to construct the
network, and one selected service provider is granted an exclusive
franchise agreement
for a finite period of time sufficient for the
Broadband provider to recover its capital investment. At the end of that
timeline, the system is open access with the incumbent Broadband
provider retaining responsibility for system maintenance and operations.

4.3. Public Assets – Open Access. In which one or more Broadband providers
contract for access to a community-owned infrastructure
that is
developed through a local improvement district, fee for services,
donations, grants, and/or other non-tax revenue sources.

4.4. Public-Led Contracting. In which the community serves as the lead entity
and Broadband provider by constructing, financing, and owning the
network infrastructure with a private sector partner providing crucial
network operations or other duties specifically negotiated.

4.5. Fully Public Funded and Operated Networks. In which the Rural
municipality designs, builds, operates, and manages a community-wide
ISP, and the Rural municipality is responsible for all aspects of the
network, including customer support and installations.

5. Required Evaluation.

5.1. Before initiating the planning or deployment of a Fully Public Funded
and Operated Network or investing or engaging in Public-Led
Contracting, a Rural municipality shall design and implement a process
through which to solicit and accept proposals to deploy a Broadband
network from private Communications Providers.

If, and only if, the Rural municipality receives no reasonable and credible
proposal † from a private Communications Provider to build a Broadband
network and otherwise determines that none of the first three options in
Section 4 of this Article are viable and if, and only if, the Rural
municipality makes a positive determination of costs, feasibility,
sustainability, and that the action is in the interest of the general public
may the Rural municipality invest in a Fully Public Funded and Operated
Network and/or engage in Public-Led Contracting. b

6. Any facilities constructed or purchased pursuant to Section 4.4 or 4.5 of this
Article must be made available to private entities
on a non-discriminatory basis
under the same terms and conditions as for the facilities listed in Article 9.

† As determined by the industry

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: I am actually shocked

"That the companies are not pushing fro the cities building the infrastructure then coming in to manage."

Because in the US core infrastructure which is owned provides a natural monopoly. Every industry in the US sees this as a holy grail of sorts.

If government regulation existed which forced corporations building and owning infrastructure into equal rights lease & share agreements existed then you’d see a lot more cooperation between the various industries and the government in expanding said infrastructure. But that’s european socialist claptrap so instead what you have is the gold rush where every entity capable of building, say, fiber in a city, has as first and second priorities to build it themselves and by hook and crook prevent all their competitors from building any.

Incredibly inefficient.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: I still trust Mike, though.

I still trust Mike, and here’s why:

A while ago, when TechDirt did everything they could to stop SOPA, PIPA, and Net Neutrality, they lost ad revenue but stuck to their principles. If the Koch Networks don’t like what in TechDirt, they’ll stop sponsoring and Mike would continue doing what he has always did rather than Mike change his message to their approval. So to that end, I’m even okay with Mike Masnick receiving Koch money, because he is not dependent on them (unlike some other people I could mention).

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Brought to you by the same stable geniuses who claimed that if only we’d stop testing for COVID we wouldn’t have so many cases.

These guys have long since figured out that if they don’t provide the support, they won’t hear their customer complaints aside from inefficient mail and calls – and if push comes to shove they can always cook the books sent to the government saying "No, we really provided broadband, pinky promise!" If he still logged in regularly Richard Bennett would be here boasting that everyone’s access is great and if it isn’t, why would a non-pirate need steady Internet access anyway?

If there’s one good thing that came out of the pandemic, it’s proving how full of shit these broadband companies are…

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