New Washington Law Requires Home Sellers Disclose Lack Of Broadband Access

from the it's-a-utility,-stupid dept

For decades the U.S. newswires have been peppered with stories where somebody bought a house after being told by their ISP it had broadband access, only to realize the ISP didn’t actually serve that address. Generally, the homeowner then realizes they have to spend a stupid amount of money to pay the local telecom monopoly to extend service.. or move again. Time after time, local ISPs are found to be flat out lying when they claim they can offer an essential utility (broadband), and the home buyer has little recourse thanks to the slow, steady erosion of U.S. state and federal telecom regulatory oversight.

So yeah, one problem is that we continue to lobotomize our state and federal telecom regulators under the bullshit claim that this results in some kind of free market Utopia (you’d think everyday reality would have cured folks of this belief by now, but nope). The other underlying culprit has generally been America’s notoriously shitty broadband maps, which let regional monopolies obscure the patchy coverage, slow speeds, and high prices created by regional monopolization so American policymakers can more easily pretend none of this is a problem.

State telecom consumer protection is generally feckless, with the entirety of telecom policy in most corrupt state legislatures directly dictated by AT&T or Comcast. Washington State continues to be one of just a few exceptions. In the last few years the state has killed a protectionist law designed to hamstring community broadband, passed its own net neutrality laws in the wake of federal apathy, and has actually stood up to the longstanding telecom industry practice of ripping off consumers with bullshit fees. Now, the state is also passing a new law requiring that home sales disclose whether the home actually has broadband:

“Starting in the new year, home sellers in Washington will be required to share their internet provider on signed disclosure forms that include information about plumbing, insulation and structural defects…”Does the property currently have internet service?” the disclosure form will now ask, along with a space to say who the provider is. The law doesn’t require sellers to detail access speeds, quality or alternative providers.

In short, the law now gives potential buyers three days after receiving the disclosure to back out of the deal if they are concerned over any of the details indicated on the form. It basically just requires the seller to confirm whether or not they currently have access, and keeps the buyer from having to confirm service availability from a regional monopoly with a vested interest in lying about their footprint reach.

It’s a small shift, but it reflects the growing COVID-era understanding that broadband is more of an essential utility than a luxury. For years telecom monopolies (and the consultants, think tankers, and proxy policy wonks paid to love them) fought tooth and nail against the idea of broadband as a utility because it would require being regulated like one. That means stricter safeguards on things like metered usage (which would be a problem given most broadband usage caps are bullshit), sneaky and completely bogus fees, predatory pricing, and other bad practices the industry has engaged in for a generation.

Telecom monopoly lobbyists and policy folks for decades were allowed to get away with the argument that broadband isn’t an essential utility and therefore should not be subject to functional, meaningful oversight. That helped build the monopolies like Comcast we all know and love. But that rhetoric was thrown immediately in the dumpster courtesy of the harsh reality of the COVID home telecommuting and home education boom (apparently the visual of kids huddled in the dirt outside of taco bell just to attend class in the richest country in history had a motivating impact, who knew?).

The problem continues to be that reform like this remains hard to come by. Federal policymakers are intentionally hamstrung and gridlocked by a Congress awash in telecom campaign contributions, and for every state like Washington there are five states that simply couldn’t care less about the laundry list of predatory behaviors regional telecom monopolies engage in on a daily basis. Like, say, falsely claiming for thirty straight years they offer broadband to areas they don’t, in part due to incompetence, and in part to help mask a widespread lack of actual coverage and competition.

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Comments on “New Washington Law Requires Home Sellers Disclose Lack Of Broadband Access”

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Frank Cox (profile) says:

Sounds reasonable to me

It sounds like a disclosure of important information about the property. Same thing as does the place have municipal water? Septic tank or municipal sewer service? Natural gas service?

The availability of water, sewer, natural gas and broadband Internet service are important things to know about before you put your money on the table, and could easily be overlooked unless it’s brought to your attention.

Electricity is a little different since the lights either come on or they don’t. But you might not realize that the furnace is propane or heating oil if you don’t know what you’re looking at. The toilet still flushes if you’re using a septic tank. And so on.

PaulT (profile) says:

"It’s a small shift, but it reflects the growing COVID-era understanding that broadband is more of an essential utility than a luxury."

Which is, of course, already a little troubling since the shift to things like online banking, employers requiring online applications, a wide difference between access to reasonably price goods online, etc. were there long before COVID. But, it’s good that a recognition that it’s not a luxury item for most people is being pushed to a small degree.

Although, the flipside to this is an implication that people are potentially buying houses without checking this kind of basic utility. I can understand why you’d rent a place in a low price range and take what you can get without fully researching everything at a moment’s notice, but buying?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Although, the flipside to this is an implication that people are potentially buying houses without checking this kind of basic utility.

i am certain this is partly true. The flipside of that being people who were lied to for months by one or more ISPs about the property having access to service.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’m referring specifically to what’s covered in the new rule – does the property currently have internet access? Obviously the installation of new service where none exists before is a different question than whether the current occupants of the property have broadband installed. If they do, then why are you not getting details of the ISP, speed, etc. from them while you’re researching the other utilities?

Again, it’s a standard question before you sign up to rent a property for 12 months, why would it not be one asked before you agree to spend hundreds of thousands on a long-term commitment?

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

If they do, then why are you not getting details of the ISP, speed, etc. from them while you’re researching the other utilities?

Getting details from whom? The seller? The seller’s agent? The ISP? They can just lie, unless there’s a regulation like this one requiring them to provide the information. The home inspector? I doubt they’re equipped to assess that.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

True, if you expect the seller to lie to you then it’s a problem. But, if you want actual working knowledge of the property then the only thing you can really rely on is the person currently living there. The point is, the rules introduced above seem to only relate to the current occupant telling you what they currently have, so that should be a good indicator of what’s possible. Whether or not you have the same availability from a different ISP to the one they currently use is a problem related to the lack of LLU, etc., that’s common in other countries, but also the seller can’t possibly tell you what experience you would have with a service they don’t use.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

True, if you expect the seller to lie to you then it’s a problem.

I’d say it’s wise to assume the seller may be at least shading the truth.

But, if you want actual working knowledge of the property then the only thing you can really rely on is the person currently living there.

Not quite true since there are property inspections. And there are some disclosures that are required by law, with penalties for false answers. Anything outside of those I would not put too much weight on.

The point is, the rules introduced above seem to only relate to the current occupant telling you what they currently have, so that should be a good indicator of what’s possible.

I would have thought so too until I read comments such as this:

https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20220104/09343048227/new-washington-law-requires-home-sellers-disclose-lack-broadband-access.shtml#c181

Whether or not you have the same availability from a different ISP to the one they currently use is a problem related to the lack of LLU, etc.

Yeah we need that badly in the US.

the seller can’t possibly tell you what experience you would have with a service they don’t use.

No, but that other ISP should be able to, and there should be consequences for them for lying to you about it (a different issue than what this story is about).

mhajicek (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Before buying my current house (in a suburb of Minneapolis), I checked with the ISP I was using at the previous one, and was assured they served the new address. Bought the place, moved in, called to setup internet. Oh, sorry, we don’t serve your street.

Had to put up with Hughesnet until I could get Starlink.

Dan Neely (profile) says:

The only gotcha I can see is with regards to DSL. A few years ago one of the major national landline companies (don’t remember if Verizon or ATT) was prohibiting the direct transfer of DSL service when a property was sold and immediately scrapping the hardware when the old owner cancelled and thus when the new owner attempted to get service would be told "there are no free circuits in your area, sorry."

Another Kevin (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Yeah. I lost my Verizon POTS a few years ago when my Circuit failed. They told me that there were no free pairs and put a cellular terminal in the house to serve the inside wiring. They tell the regulators that my community is provisioned with FIOS because there are a couple of houses in one little corner of the town who have it from the next town over. Apparently all this is legal and they get to collect the universal service fees for doing bupkis.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Most of that is because of the way regulators have forced a disconnect between the physical infrastructure owner and the ISP service, enforced things like local loop unbundling and thus ensured that we don’t have the same kind of local monopolies present in the US. Where I live, the physical lines may well still be provided by the old government monopoly (though in some places there’s choice even with that), they just can’t stop someone else using the lines, which leads to different types of competition.

Anonymous Coward says:

That law is needed because new computers do not come with modems. Some computers do not even have ethernet connections, and Wifi is the only way to access the net.

You have to have some kind of broadband because modern computers have no ability to do dial up, as they do not come with modems anymore.

The dial-up modem is dead, and it is good that the State Of Washington is realizing that.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"That law is needed because new computers do not come with modems"

Yes, many new computers do not come with obsolete tech installed by default. Your 56K modem will not allow you to participate in Zoom conferences for your work or schooling, so it’s a weird thing to bring up in the current conversation.

"Some computers do not even have ethernet connections, and Wifi is the only way to access the net."

All modern computers come with the capability to have an ethernet connection, they may just require an adapter instead of having the port directly built in. But, this is irrelevant in the broadband era since you would need a router to access either type of connection, and it would be easier to access wifi from outside of your direct home if required than ethernet.

Another Kevin (profile) says:

Re: Better

Generally, service drops – from the curb to the house, basically – have been installed at the builders’ or customers’ expense since forever. I’d be fine with that if the telcos and cable providers hadn’t expanded that to include wiring that’s off my property. I’m not in a position to negotiate with the township for utility access along the right-of-way or with the power company for the use of their poles. It’s particularly obnoxious when a company cuts an exclusive deal for a right of way and then doesn’t wire it but sits on it so that nobody else can provide service.

I’m also for repeal of the universal service fee since there is no universal service mandate any longer.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Better

Generally, service drops – from the curb to the house, basically – have been installed at the builders’ or customers’ expense since forever.

And that’s fine if that’s what is advertised. In other words if you call up and they tell you we can serve that address but it will cost you $10,000 to get it installed, fine. At least you know what you’re getting into. If they just say yes, we serve that address then they should be on the hook for it IMO.

I’m also for repeal of the universal service fee since there is no universal service mandate any longer.

Agreed, it’s just giving them money to do nothing.

Anonymous Coward says:

I work for an industrial automation firm in small-town Ontario, Canada. We relocated a year or two ago to larger quarters. Our existing service was with a large incumbent telco (let’s just say that it’s a four-letter word which rhymes with "hell") and was fibre-to-the-whatever which we’d obtained under an ugly, one-sided contract because they were the only available broadband ISP at our old location.

In our new location? They advertise ten megabits, they deliver five – maximum. For what our company does, which includes remotely administering servers, that just won’t do. Our new location in the industrial park, even though it’s beaten-path and right near the freeway, has no CATV available so DSL has a wireline monopoly. We tried satellite, but the latency was enough to make remote desktop protocol and the like basically unusable. There’s no fibre, although the electric company said they could install some just for us if we commit to at least several hundred dollars a month for the next three years for even the slowest connection. If it actually needs to be fast enough to be usable, that costs extra. We’re now sitting on a rural wireless connection because that was the least-worst service available. It’s not great, but if the local DSL is advertising 10Mbps and struggling to deliver five, we’re running out of options. And that’s 5-10Mbps for an entire technology company, not per seat or per individual user.

The worst part? The ILEC is trying to charge us $500 to break the contract at our old location… even through they’re the ones refusing to move the service to the new building which we purchased, even though they lied to us and claimed a faster connection was available before we bought the new place – when they knew damnedd well it wasn’t. Of course we disputed it, and now we’re being harassed by robocalls from these bozos.

As this is Canada, the regulator (CRTC) is an even bigger joke than the US FCC. In terms of regulatory capture, it’s enough to make one pine for the good old days of the Interstate Commerce Commission, as we are being railroaded. Politicians talk the talk about encouraging little companies like ours to create STEM jobs, but when the rubber hits the road, they’re all in the back pockets of the incumbent monopoly and we could take a flying leap off a digital cliff for all they actually care.

Anonymous Coward says:

what do ISPs gain from lying about this?

they surely can’t be banking on homeowners actually paying 100k+ for a network expansion, so what is it? how does AT&T make money off me buying a house that is not within AT&T’s coverage zone? are the local realtors bribing AT&T to lie to me so i’ll buy one of the houses they’re selling?

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