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.

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Comments on “Illinois, Missouri, and New York Lawmakers Are Helping Telecom Monopolies Block Broadband Competition”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
That One Guy (profile) says:

Funny how much they love THESE regulations...

As sleazy as efforts like this are on their own when you take into account the recent article where the ISP involved claimed that they absolutely served a particular house only for the homeowner to find out that it would take just under twenty thousand for them to actually do so it takes the rampant corruption to whole new levels.

ISP’s are claiming that areas they aren’t actually serving are already connected to prevent others from stepping in and doing what they refuse to in a greed-fueled effort to ensure that if people aren’t getting their internet from them they’re not getting it period so as to avoid even the potential of actual competition.

And then, as the cherry on top, after ensuring that the only one getting government subsidies will be them they have the audacity to scream about the horrors of socialism…

Nick-B says:

Re: Serving an address?

I think that if an ISP claims to serve an address in the broadband maps, then they must be responsible for paying for any “additional construction” it would take to ACTUALLY serve the address upon request of service, and are required to do so immediately. No “We’ll get around to it after all our other work” excuses to delay it indefinitely. I bet our broadband maps would be updated really quickly after that.

Naughty Autie says:

“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.”

Antitrust laws should kick in here. This behaviour is the very definitions of the words ‘monopolistic’ and ‘cartel’, especially in the areas where the incumbents getting these laws passed don’t provide service. Unfortunately, I don’t see the federal government stepping in since they’re currently too busy with much pettier things.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

It would be nice for a reporter to finally ask a politician how much it cost to buy them.
There is no reason to tamper with the free market or to stop cities tired of being shafted by incumbents from offering better cheaper service.
Obviously the political donation matters more than making things better for those they allegedly represent, so I see nothing wrong with directly asking how much they got to screw the public out of better cheaper service.

Anonymous Coward says:

the question we should now expect to be answered is ‘how much are these ‘law makers’ receiving from the main players to do this? no one in their right mind, surely, is gonna want there to be less competition, resulting in piss poor service and services, and getting nothing for doing so, would they? there has to be rewards for those concerned and you can bet your ass they aint gonna just admit it!

ECA (profile) says:

To much fun

To read anything into this, is to understand that the Cellphone maps have Always Been BAD.
KNowing how they get built is Fun also, in that they are NOT totally wireless to Wireless system. They tried creating a 2nd backbone of wireless.
But after buying up the Main Tier 1 of the internet, they had better access to not paying for access to it, and can build Towers Anywhere those lines go. OR where they have them Newly installed.
Which add’s a good question. HAVE they updated the Old and created NEW lines of the backbone?

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