70% Support Letting Cities Build Their Own Broadband Networks, So Why Are We Still Passing State Laws Banning It?
from the state-government-for-sale dept
For years we've noted how more than twenty states have passed laws -- often quite literally written by ISP lobbyists -- that prevent towns and cities from building their own broadband networks (either alone, or with a private partner). Even in instances where, as is often the case, the incumbent broadband provider refuses to upgrade them. ISP lobbyists (and the lawmakers that love them) usually try to defend these protectionist laws by first demonizing municipal broadband as some kind of vile socialist cabal, then pretending new state laws are necessary to protect local communities from themselves.
In reality, municipal broadband is an organic, grassroots reaction to broadband market failure. And buying laws that restrict local communities' rights to decide local infrastructure matters for themselves is little more than regulatory capture. Like net neutrality and privacy rights, municipal broadband actually has broad, bipartisan support -- and most municipal broadband networks are built in Conservative markets with local voter support. But by framing the issue in a partisan way (government run amok!), ISP lobbyists have been able to sow dissent and stall progress that could challenge their status quo.
A new survey of 4,000 consumers by the Pew Research Project once again drives that point home, highlighting that 70% of Americans support letting towns and cities build their own broadband networks -- if they're not getting decent service by the regional incumbent:
"A substantial majority of the public (70%) believes local governments should be able to build their own broadband networks if existing services in the area are either too expensive or not good enough, according to the survey, conducted March 13-27. Just 27% of U.S. adults say these so-called municipal broadband networks should not be allowed. (A number of state laws currently prevent cities from building their own high-speed networks, and several U.S. senators recently introduced a bill that would ban these restrictions.)"
That said, partisan lines are far more stark when it comes to support for subsidizing broadband to low-income areas:
"At the same time, fewer than half of Americans (44%) think the government should provide subsidies to help lower-income Americans pay for high-speed internet at home. A larger share (54%) says high-speed home internet service is affordable enough that nearly every household should be able to buy service on its own."
Partisan battle lines are also quite notable when it comes to asking consumers if they think broadband is essential versus just kind of important (in part because if you admit broadband is "essential," then you need to do something about it -- and that might cost taxpayer dollars):
"Republicans and Democrats tend to agree that broadband is important, but Democrats are more likely to say it is essential: 58% of Democrats and Democratic leaners describe broadband in this way, compared with 38% of Republicans and Republican leaners. A similar split is evident by race and ethnicity, with blacks (55%) and Hispanics (61%) more likely than whites (45%) to say that high-speed access at home is essential."
That dissent is certainly understandable, given how easy it has been for companies like Verizon to nab billions in tax breaks and subsidies for jobs half-completed. There's also a laundry list of states like West Virginia, where regional incumbents received millions in well-intentioned subsidies -- only to turn around and waste that money on projects that helped virtually nobody. While some skepticism is warranted, there are countless instances where broadband subsidies did precisely what they were designed to do -- without much (if any) fanfare.
But again, it's interesting how municipal broadband tends to smash through these well-worn partisan grooves many of us dig into the earth. In large part because if there's one thing that we can all agree on -- it's that companies like Comcast and AT&T kind of suck, and dealing with their utterly abysmal customer support is a unifying, albeit miserable, experience. So then, too, is sticking it to these giant, lumbering, apathetic, and uncompetitive sector giants, and building a local, more accountable network operator where the money -- and employment -- actually remains in the local community.
The problem usually winds up being how to pay for it. Consumers may support the idea of municipal broadband and want to protect their right to vote for or against it, but many don't want to pay for it. That's why we're seeing more public/private partnerships between cities and companies like Google or Tucows/Ting. The problem, again: state laws bought by large ISPs often ban or hamstring public/private partnerships as well to help keep local competition at bay.
Despite the broad support for municipal broadband, states continue to sell state telecom law to the highest bidder. AT&T convinced Missouri to pass a law earlier this year expanding restrictions on municipal broadband -- after the telco failed to bury a restricting provision into a state traffic bill. Virginia tried to similarly expand its ban on municipal broadband, but lawmakers there were forced to retreat after they took a notable beating from the press and public.
As we've long noted, one surefire way to prevent towns and cities from getting into the broadband business is to provide cheaper, better service. But it has long been significantly easier to just buy a state lawmaker and protectionist law to protect the dysfunctional status quo. And like so many issues facing America, until we at least marginally address money's influence on politics -- and/or drive a higher turnout during state elections, little if any of this is going to change.