State Laws Restricting Community Broadband Are Hurting US Communities During The Pandemic
from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept
We’ve talked for years about how telecom monopolies like Comcast and AT&T have ghost written laws in more than twenty states, banning or hamstringing towns and cities looking to build their own broadband networks. We’ve also noted with COVID clearly illustrating how broadband is essential for education, opportunity, employment, and healthcare, such restrictions are looking dumber than ever. Voters should have every right to make local infrastructure decisions for themselves, and if big ISPs and armchair free market policy wonks don’t want that to happen, incumbent ISPs should provide faster, cheaper, better service.
As the pandemic continues, some cities have found ways around such restrictions — by focusing more specifically on serving struggling, low income Americans. Texas is one such state that long ago passed municipal restrictions, courtesy of Dallas-based AT&T. AT&T doesn’t want to upgrade or repair many of its DSL lines, but it also doesn’t want communities upgrading or building networks either lest it become a larger trend (too late). As a result, in San Antonio, an amazing 38% of homes still don’t have residential broadband.
The city’s existing network can’t really expand commercial service thanks to a law written by AT&T. But that law doesn’t prohibit the city from servicing the poor by offering free service, something made possible by the recent CARES Act:
“This year in a number of cities, the pandemic has inspired some narrower versions of municipal broadband that get around these restrictions, focused on creating ?affordable networks? that specifically target low-income households. Several of these were born out of the immediate need to bridge the homework gap.
?Pre-Covid there were at most a handful of networks being built to address affordability; now, we?ve started informally keeping a list and we?re over 30,? Siefer says. ?The phenomena of setting up a network for that reason, in that way, is new.”
In San Antonio’s case, the city used $27 million in CARES Act funding to expand its existing network to 20,000 students across the city?s 50 most vulnerable neighborhoods. Entrenched monopolies (and the law makers, policy wonks, think tankers, and academics paid to love them) love to insist that such networks are an inevitable taxpayer boondoggle. Yet those same folks never make a solitary peep as we throw massive tax breaks at companies like AT&T for literally doing absolutely nothing. Or billions more at a rotating crop of companies for networks they, time and time and time again, fail to deliver.
The problem is that these community funding solutions are temporary, and lack funding to continue for more than a year or two, despite our very obvious broadband coverage gaps (42 million without service, 83 million locked under a monopoly). The other problem, of course, is that overpriced, slow, and spotty US broadband is the direct result of corruption and monopolization, problems we often refuse to even acknowledge, much less do anything about.
The solutions here aren’t complicated, we just don’t want to do them. We could easily ask voters if they want to discard the 20+ protectionist laws written by monopolies, letting local citizens decide local infrastructure issues themselves. We could beef up antitrust enforcement, and refuse to rubber stamp mindless telecom mergers that inevitably lead to more consolidation, less competition, and higher prices. We could embrace policies that upset incumbent monopolies by driving additional competition to market. We could reform campaign finance laws so AT&T and Comcast don’t all but own countless state legislatures.
But we don’t do that. Instead, we let monopolies write state and federal policy and laws with an eye on protecting the status quo. Laws that make disruption by smaller players expensive, cumbersome, and often impossible. We then throw billions of dollars at said monopolies for networks they routinely only half deploy. We rubber stamp harmful mergers and fail to hold monopolies accountable for much of anything. Once that’s done, we then stand around with a dumb look on our collective faces wondering why US broadband is utterly mediocre in nearly every single metric that matters.