Illinois, Missouri, and New York Lawmakers Are Helping Telecom Monopolies Block Broadband Competition
from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept
We’ve already noted how U.S. broadband maps aren’t just terrible, they’ve laid the foundation for terrible policy. When your maps falsely overstate competition and broadband coverage, it makes it easy to downplay or ignore the primary reason U.S. broadband stinks: regional monopolization and the state and federal corruption that protects and enables it.
But the problem with broadband maps goes far beyond the obvious (bad maps = bad policy). Incumbent monopolies consistently use the maps to block competitors or local towns or cities from improving broadband access–even if Comcast, AT&T, Verizon or some other dominant incumbent refuses to. Usually by falsely claiming areas demanding better service are already served.
It’s a bipartisan affair for state politicians easily swayed by telecom campaign contributions. Illinois, New York, and Missouri are all pushing new bills that would block local cooperatives, governments, utilities, and other grass roots broadband efforts from obtaining and using the billions in unprecedented federal broadband funding in the pipeline courtesy of Covid relief and the infrastructure bill.
For example, in Illinois, new legislation crafted by state Democrats with the “help” of Comcast, Verizon and others attempts to prohibit local governments from using federal funds to deploy competition to areas that incumbent ISPs already claim to serve:
…according to the bill summary, the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity would be tasked with implementing a statewide broadband grant program that proposes the state “shall use money from the grant program only for the exclusive purpose of awarding grants to applicants for projects that are limited to the construction and deployment of broadband service into unserved areas” and that the state “shall not award grant money to a governmental entity or educational institution.”
A bill recently introduced by Missouri Republicans, Missouri SB 1074, does effectively the same thing. Even in purportedly “progressive” New York, Democratic state lawmakers have introduced language into the budget bill that would hamstring the use of federal funds to keep it away from public community broadband efforts. Our love affair with shitty telecom monopolies is truly bipartisan.
Some of the bills don’t just block local governments from getting funds, they block any organization that has been working with state or local governments from getting funding.
Big telecom couldn’t block funding from going to local community broadband alternatives on the federal level, so they’re now exploiting corrupt state leaders to pass restrictions on the state level. They don’t want to deploy broadband to many of these areas due to low ROI, but they don’t want locals to do it either lest they change their mind someday down the road. They want to have their cake and eat it too.
But community broadband isn’t some monolithic thing. Sometimes it’s a local cooperative. Sometimes it’s a regional utility that expanded its electricity fiber for residential and enterprise use. Sometimes it’s a local government that partnered with a private company. ISPs and some lawmakers like to frame it as all “government socialism” because that riles up simplistic partisans and sows dissent in a bid to protect the monopolistic status quo.
So there’s a transparent reason they want to restrict funding to anywhere other than “unserved” areas. We aren’t accurately measuring what areas we define as “served.” Our definition of broadband (25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up) is also crap, which erodes the definition of “served” even further. Big telecom monopolies have lobbied against efforts to improve both, because it helps obscure a lack of competition and market failure.
Not only are big telecom lobbyists looking to block competitive alternatives from getting federal funding by lying about who can and can’t get broadband, they’re also leaning on our inaccurate broadband maps to file baseless challenges against local communities when they apply for grants at the NTIA, claiming (again using bad data) that such efforts are “duplicative” and unnecessary.
So local states and communities not only have to waste money mapping broadband themselves (since ISP data provided by the FCC isn’t accurate), they have to spend money fighting telecom lawyer challenges. If they beat that process, local communities often face industry lawsuits, and additional protectionist state laws greatly restricting where they can expand and how projects can be funded.
After drowning such efforts in added costs, telecom lobbyists (and their armies of consultants, think tankers, and paid academics) will then falsely try to frame all community broadband efforts as wasteful government boondoggles. It’s a miserable gantlet all in serve of protecting a handful of regional monopolies (AT&T, Verizon, Charter, Comcast, Lumen, and Frontier) from disruption.
Given the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) specifically forbids states from blocking cooperatives, municipalities, and utilities from funding (a rare federal nod to these efforts’ benefits), states that pass these kinds of restrictions could find themselves in violation of federal law, potentially risking the entirety of their broadband funding.
Because this isn’t about Elon Musk or crypto, these sleazy efforts won’t get much attention from a gadget and hype obsessed press. But it’s gross, harmful, and important all the same, and could meaningfully imperil a once-in-a-generation funding opportunity for local communities looking to finally climb out from underneath telecom monopolization thirty years in the making.
Again, local towns and cities aren’t getting into the broadband business because it’s fun, they’re doing so because of market failure, spotty service, and slow monopoly speeds. Monopolies could counter this surging grass roots movement by offering better, cheaper, faster broadband, but they’d rather spend much of that money attempting to rig the game in their favor.