Hey, Just A Silly Thought: Maybe It's Time We Stop Letting Comcast And AT&T Write State Telecom Law?

from the red-vs-blue-vs-grey dept

As we've noted a few times, one of the biggest obstacles to getting real next-generation broadband networks deployed in the United States is the protectionist broadband laws large ISPs have written and lobbied for nineteen states. These laws erode local rights by prohibiting or hindering towns and cities from building their own broadband networks (or in some cases even partnering with a private company) -- even in cases where nobody else will.

In a sane world, most of us would normally agree that letting AT&T or Comcast write self-serving state law that tramples citizen rights is bad for everyone. But like so many technology issues in the United states (like net neutrality), municipal broadband has somehow fallen victim to partisan nitwit disease, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. That shouldn't be the case; most municipal broadband networks are actually voted on and built in Conservative leaning areas (since it's more rural areas that tend to have less competition and need the most help). As with net neutrality, if you actually sit people down and talk to them most people actually tend to agree. "Why yes, I would prefer it if my rights weren't curtailed by a Comcast lawyer, thank you very much."

But instead of acknowledging we agree and moving forward to carve out the best solution possible, money in politics has polluted the discourse well. As a result, we all get to live in a badly-written dystopian novel, where giant companies write the law, and loyal politicians like Martha Blackburn defend protectionism by pretending they're only really concerned about the little guy.

I've written about this issue for fifteen years, and for most of that time it wasn't a sexy enough of a subject to get the attention of technology news outlets, much less the mainstream press. As such, it was relatively easy for carrier lobbyists to get these laws passed. In the last few years, however, things have been changing; efforts like Google Fiber and municipal broadband builds in places like Lafayette, Louisiana, Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, have shown a bright spotlight on the lack of competition and the precise reasons why. As such, protecting broadband duopolies through greased-palm legislation has gotten a tiny bit harder.

Yet we still can't seem to cure partisan nitwit disease. Take for example, the recently re-introduced by Cory Booker Community Broadband Act (pdf). A rehash of truly bipartisan efforts attempted in both 2005 and 2007, the bill has been brought out and dusted off to try and kill off these awful state laws. The proposal's wording is clear:
"No statute, regulation, or other legal requirement of a State or local government may prohibit, or have the effect of prohibiting or substantially inhibiting, any public provider from providing telecommunications service or advanced telecommunications capability or services to any person or any public or private entity."
Of course the law is most likely going nowhere, because giant ISPs have, like most companies, poured gasoline and campaign cash on partisan divisions to ensure partisan gridlock. As such, Republicans will mindlessly fight the measure under the pretense of just being super concerned about states' rights and the poor American taxpayer. The point may be moot. On February 26 (the same day it's slated to vote on net neutrality), the FCC will vote to consider pre-empting the restrictive provisions in these state laws under its Congressional authority to ensure broadband is deployed in a "reasonable and timely basis."

That's the first time in fifteen years the FCC could be bothered to even look at this relatively common sense issue, much less engage it on the policy front. That suggests progress -- even if we're still looking for a cure to the pandemic that is partisan nitwit disease.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jan 2015 @ 6:59am

    Still in favor of an amendment

    I have long been in favor of a constitutional amendment requiring sworn attribution/authorship information of any text to be considered in a bill. It's high time we knew who was writing this stuff.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jan 2015 @ 7:08am

    Counting the days until 'community broadband' becomes a slur in the same way as 'community organizer'

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Jan 2015 @ 7:24am

      Re:

      Nah, it's not an inevitable countdown. It's a race as to which happens first. Do big ISPs attempting to smear "community broadband" succeed first? Or does "community broadband" become identical to utilities like water supplies maintained by a city or county?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jan 2015 @ 7:12am

    wow! what an excellent idea! all that is needed now is for Comcast and AT&T to be convinced of this (damn near impossible!) and then get the members of Congress to go along as well (a damn sight more impossible!!) and we're home and dry! how come i dont have much confidence in this happening??

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Pragmatic, 28 Jan 2015 @ 5:23am

      Re:

      how come i dont have much confidence in this happening??
      Partisan nitwit disease.

      If the lamestream media whipped up enough panic about it, do you think more of us would do something about it?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Matthew (profile), 27 Jan 2015 @ 7:17am

    No, see...

    No, see, the guys that run the broadband industry are experts in broadband, so why would you turn to someone else to make laws? No one else has their experience with the key players and technical doo-dad-ery. NO ONE!
    Who knows more than them about how to serve (up) customers? NO ONE! Why do you hate knowledge and expertise? Are you some kind of anti-elitist elitist?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      BigRedBeast, 27 Jan 2015 @ 4:24pm

      Re: No, see...

      Well, you do have a point that they are the experts in that field, but the main issue this article is talking about is what is stopping those same companies from screwing you over with these laws? The answer is simple, nothing. Those companies are making th those laws to benifit themselves and to make more money rather than you. We, the customer are just a foot note to them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jan 2015 @ 7:21am

    You can hear the major telcos having conniption fits now. The urge to do something, anything, to stymie this competition that would probably be better speeds, services, and prices than they demand now.

    There are so many major corporations that need broken up today, just to eliminate the blockades that have been erected to prevent competition. In the case of AT&T it has reassembled again into a giant mega corporation, with all the ills that comes with that shown in spades. Nor is it the only one demonstrating why we need competition to end the greed schemes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      PRMan, 27 Jan 2015 @ 12:12pm

      Re:

      Exactly. Instead of letting Comcast and Time Warner merge, we should break each of them up into 2 companies and they both have to pay a fixed amount per subscriber for access to the other's half of the (now-shared) lines.

      This would fix the problems in cable FAR faster than letting them merge.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jan 2015 @ 7:52am

    Another silly thought...

    ...why do we allow (insert any business here) to write (insert any law here)?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 27 Jan 2015 @ 8:00am

      Re: Another silly thought...

      Money.

      Pools of money, and politicians so easy to buy that they might as well walk around with 'For Sale' stitched on the front and back of their suits.

      Not helping: A system that pretty much requires politicians to sell out if they want to be elected or re-elected. Integrity and ethics are great, but when things are set up such that the one with the most money will almost always win(politically and otherwise), that pretty much guarantees that the politicians that get elected/re-elected most often are the ones who are the most willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder, while those with some freakin' self-respect languish on the wayside.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Jan 2015 @ 9:09am

      Re: Another silly thought...

      Getting elected is for the monied. Activism is for the poor.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Pragmatic, 28 Jan 2015 @ 5:26am

      Re: Another silly thought...

      ...why do we allow (insert any business here) to write (insert any law here)?

      Corporations are people, my friend.
      - Mitt Romney

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jan 2015 @ 8:14am

    Or we can just start our own underground community broadband

    Hackers in Havana Build Computer Network Despite Government Ban

    http://soylentnews.org/article.pl?sid=15/01/26/1434250

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 27 Jan 2015 @ 8:42am

      Re:

      I know of two communities near me that have already done this, and have talked with people involved with a half dozen other such efforts in various communities across the nation. This is a thing that's happening.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 27 Jan 2015 @ 9:32am

        Re: Re:

        This excites me!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          John Fenderson (profile), 27 Jan 2015 @ 9:52am

          Re: Re: Re:

          I think it's very exciting, particularly in the context of the efforts to build a sort of second internet. I got into this this when a friend and I accidentally set something like this up ourselves.

          The problem was that my friend lived in an extremely rural area where there is no broadband internet service at all. So we set up a microwave link for him to a place where broadband was available. Once his neighbors learned that he was getting broadband, we hooked them up as well. We ended up with a kind of micro-isp that serves broadband to 8 households.

          (Disclaimer: we did get the proper licensing for the microwave link, but I'm pretty sure that it would never have been discovered if we decided not to.)

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jake, 27 Jan 2015 @ 8:52am

    At the risk of getting myself put on some sort of watch-list, don't you folks have a fine local tradition involving buckets of hot tar, sacks of feathers and a fence rail? Making a few examples might go a long way towards reminding Congress who they ultimately answer to...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Shel10 (profile), 27 Jan 2015 @ 9:11am

    We don't need a broadband amendment to our Constitution. We do need to put restrictions on lobbying. All telecommunication carriers spend a significant amount of money on lobbying. A first step could be to create a special business classification for telecommunication carriers. Then disallow deductions for lobbying on Federal and State income taxes. Then add a tax on top of any lobbying activity.

    We don't have adequate broadband services in this Country because it costs less to lobby legislators than to provide the services.

    Rural areas don't have service for several reasons. First - overly restrictive access to rights-of-way on public roads; second - excessive requirements not to disturb the environment.

    Where we do have broadband services, the cost is 2 to 3 times higher than most other industrialized countries.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    NoahVail (profile), 27 Jan 2015 @ 10:30am

    "Yet we still can't seem to cure partisan nitwit disease"

    I run into partisan/ideology nitwit disease All. The. Stinking. Time.

    Are you an ideological or partisan nitwit? Take the test and find out!

    Answer the 2 following questions:
    1) On some issues, Conservative Republicans are more likely to be on the right side than Liberal Democrats.
    2) On some issues, Liberal Democrats are more likely to be on the right side than Conservative Republicans.

    If you are unable to answer yes to both of those questions or if doing so causes severe discomfort, there's a high likelihood you are infected.
    Seek help immediately.

    Until help arrives, employ these temporary safety measures:
    1) Stop viewing cable news.
    2) Immediately discard any information originating from or transiting networks owned by News Corp, GE, Westinghouse, Disney, TimeWarner or Clear Channel.
    3) Cultivate a deep understanding that the two major political parties are equally good/bad for America and their primary benefactor will always be themselves. It may help to study their obvious similarities to duopolistic corporations.
    4) Practice voting incumbents out of office.
    5) Courageously face any animosity you feel for people you don't agree with and learn to let it go.
    6) Never vote for a candidate without knowing the specific policies they'll enact while in office.
    7a) Never vote for a candidate because you despise their opponent.
    7b) If you consistently feel anger toward a representative you didn't vote for, your free will is likely compromised. Seek professional help.
    8) Go outside and play. Enjoy the company of people with different values.

    The proceeding help is brought to you by someone who cares.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    notcaptainkirk (profile), 27 Jan 2015 @ 10:06pm

    A bit later, but better than never

    We had community cable TV as part of our municipally owned Alameda Municipal Power. I live in a Alameda, California, a city of about 75,000 on an island in San Francisco Bay.

    Addition of the cable service was voted by the citizens, a pitched campaign between socialism and capitalism - or so we were told. There were many people campaigning door to door for and against. Comcast hired technically clueless shills to canvas from outside the city. I and other tech savvy neighbors evangelized pro bono.

    For a number of reasons as the cable infrastructure was being build out the services was squeezed out of business by Comcast and then sold to Comcast at a financial loss. The system was mismanaged, our power management was incompetent at telecom, Goldman Sachs was involved in the municipal bond process - and you can guess what happened with that, and litigation followed albeit not as badly as it could have been.

    The key to success for this proposal is that cities need expertise to help guide them or they'll be scammed by both sides.

    I build tech startups in highly regulated industries such as finance, patent litigation, health care, but those the TV and cable industry is very successful at buying votes. When one reads the history of cable you realize it's always been a monopoly dependent creating artificial barriers to entry. Buying local council members is cheap. Get enough of those and you can buy some US Senators to control the law and some movie studios to control the content distribution rules.

    A BIT MORE BACKGROUND

    It's been perhaps 8 years, so my memory is poor, but IIRC our local problem was AMP or AMTP (telecom) could not obtain rights to content due to a conflict with licensing authorities. In plain language, the cable giants made a deal with the movie studios and networks that did not permit one geographic area to be supplied by 2 competitors. A satellite provider could compete with cable or telephone, but not 2 telephone, or 2 cable or 2 satellite. This provides for a monopoly.

    AMP had hundreds of digital channels with new technology with literally nothing on them. Comcast had 31 analog channels on old analog lines, but they had a lock on the favorite content such as ESPN. No content, no subscribers. (My memory is weak on some of these, but content was a major bone of contention for neighbors deciding not to switch service.)

    Our desire was for fast internet first and cheap TV shows a distant second. AMP delivered.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John Peacock (profile), 28 Jan 2015 @ 7:27am

    How cable TV started

    One thing that never comes up in these discussions is that the origin of cable television back in 1948 was CATV - Community Access TV. It came about because isolated communities couldn't receive over the air television signals due to geographic limitations, e.g. being in a valley on the other side from the "major" network antennas. The community banded together and built an antenna that could receive the signal then transmitted it via a cable to the citizens who paid for it.

    I'm willing to let Comcast, et al, continue to have a monopoly in an area as long as they are willing to pay back the billions of dollars of access rights they were granted to run their cables along the right of way...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    John Thacker, 28 Jan 2015 @ 9:02am

    How is public broadband different from public stadiums?

    Kind of interesting that Google Fiber has been expanding in the states that *have* these types of laws, like North Carolina and Tennessee, isn't it?

    And if you're going to list community broadband projects, isn't at least worth mentioning those like in Monticello, MN and Provo, UT that went into default and cost those cities a few millions of dollars? I can certainly understand people feeling that the ensuing broadband competition was worth spending that money (Provo sold for $1 to Google Fiber, and Monticello at least got better service from the existing broadband competing with it), but it's worth explaining exactly why spending on muni broadband is any different than municipalities and states spending money on sports stadiums (most of which are technically publically-owned, even if one particular team and their fans benefit.) The money charged per month by community broadband is only part of the cost; the taxes that pay for the bonds issued by it is another, and has to be included. (Unless you're just counting it as a win that you can make grandmothers who don't want the Internet pay for you.)

    Supporters of cities and states building stadiums also talk about economic benefits and so forth. Do people here also support them, or do you only support things that people like you enjoy? Especially since we've reached a point where most people who don't have the Internet at home say that it's because they're not interested (and they're mostly elderly), not because of cost.

    I'm sure that if they got to using it they might enjoy it, but I'm equally sure that I could turn people on to bridge or baseball if you let me try.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    farooge (profile), 29 Jan 2015 @ 9:02am

    She's my rep and I find her repulsive, BUT ..

    Let me preface this with: "Every time I hear her talk I want to reach through the speaker and punch her in the nose" (I don't vote so it's not partisan) and I completely agree that the entire problem with broadband could be 'fixed' with REAL competition.

    Ok, Marsha is my rep (to whichever part of Congress she belongs) and AT&T basically 'wrote our bill' (right?).

    I live in Nashville and work downtown at the local electric utility (NES) .. whose poles Google will be using for their fiber (I've actually heard they're going to REPLACE A BUNCH of them) and I can see the state capital from my window AND I know some of the people who are familiar with the negotiations.

    So, if these bills are so bad then:

    A) How did this happen so (seemingly) easily?
    and
    B) Why haven't I heard a peep about any 'stupid laws' standing in the way?
    and I'll add a third ...
    C) would have this been possible without the 'AT&T legislation'?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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