Washington State Votes To Kill Law That Restricted Community Broadband
from the pass-go,-collect-your-$200 dept
For years a growing number of US towns and cities have been forced into the broadband business thanks to US telecom market failure. Frustrated by high prices, lack of competition, spotty coverage, and terrible customer service, some 750 US towns and cities have explored some kind of community broadband option. And while the telecom industry routinely likes to insist these efforts always end in disaster, that’s never actually been true. While there certainly are bad business plans and bad leaders, studies routinely show that such services not only see the kind of customer satisfaction scores that are alien to large private ISPs, they frequently offer better, faster service at lower, more transparent pricing than many dominant broadband providers.
Hoping to thwart this organic community response to market failure, big ISPs like AT&T and Comcast have waged a multi-pronged, several decade attack on such efforts: (1) by lobbying for (and usually ghost writing) protectionist laws in roughly 19 states either hamstringing or banning cities from building their own networks, and (2) by funding economists, consultants, and think tankers (usually via proxy organizations) happy to try and claim that community broadband is always a taxpayer boondoggle — unnecessary because private sector US broadband is just that wonderful.
These arguments were always fairly flimsy, but they’ve proven particularly hollow during the pandemic, which has showcased how 42 million Americans still lack access to broadband, and another 83 million Americans currently live under a broadband monopoly (usually Comcast). Motivated by the fact these state restrictions make no sense, Washington State this week voted to eliminate their own, 20-year-old state restrictions on community broadband:
BREAKING: Wash. Senate just passed my Public Broadband Act (HB1336).
Thanks to the parents, teachers, students, public utility districts, tribes, activists, 1000+ people signing in support (!) and more. WE did this; amazing team effort.
Public Broadband Now!!!
— Rep. Drew Hansen (@RepDrewHansen) April 12, 2021
While Washington State’s law allowed some municipal broadband, it prohibited locally owned utilities from offering broadband directly to consumers. State Representative Drew Hansen told me eliminating the restrictions should open the door to a bit more competition in the state (I live in Seattle (aka Silicon Valley North) and Comcast is currently my only option):
“Washington was one of only 18 states that restricted local governments from serving the public by providing public broadband,? Hansen told Motherboard. ?My bill eliminates that restriction.”
Other states, like Tennessee have similar restrictions lobbied for by incumbents like AT&T and Comcast. In Chattanooga, the local utility EPB has repeatedly been awarded for offering some of the fastest, cheapest fiber optic broadband in America. But thanks to state laws effectively bought by monopolists, the utility can’t expand access to consumers outside its existing utility footprint. In some states, these laws simply make community broadband a costly, bureaucratic nightmare. In others, such networks are banned entirely.
If entrenched broadband providers really wanted to thwart such options, they’d simply offer faster, cheaper service. Instead, they’ve found it more cost effective to buy laws restricting the options, even if local community members want to vote for it. They’ve also spent countless dollars spreading a lot of nonsense and bile about how community broadband is “socialism” or an “inevitable taxpayer boondoggle.” But again, these efforts are an organic, grass roots community response to decades of monopoly-pampering government policies (aka regulatory capture and corruption) and regional monopolization.
Should Washington Governor Jay Inslee sign the law, that will be the second such law eliminated so far this year (after Arkansas rolled back many of its own restrictions last February). That still leaves 17 states that thought protecting telecom monopoly revenues was more important than embracing local, creative efforts to drive access to better, faster, cheaper broadband. But given that COVID is busy showcasing the hollowness of the opposition to community broadband, it seems likely that additional states could soon follow suit.