Telecom Lobbyists Crushed San Francisco's Quest For Better Broadband

from the dysfunction-junction dept

While cities like Seattle and San Francisco are known as technology and innovation hubs, that hasn't historically been reflected by the broadband markets in those cities. Like everywhere else, the two cities suffer from little real broadband competition, with incumbent monopolies like Comcast leaving consumers and businesses with a dearth of options for quality, lower cost broadband. And, like the rest of America, as companies like AT&T and Verizon shift their ambitions to online advertising, they're refusing to upgrade aging DSL lines, leaving cable with an even more potent monopoly that 5G wireless isn't likely to fix.

Faced with decades of sub-par service, "tech hubs" like Seattle and San Francisco have pondered building their own broadband networks. More than 750 towns and cities have pursued the option, which is why ISPs like AT&T and Comcast have lobbied for laws in nearly two-dozen states attempting to ban or hamstring such efforts. It's not hard to see why. Chatanooga's Publicly-owned ISP EPB was ranked last year as the best ISP in the nation, and Harvard studies have shown that such community networks tend to offer better service at lower and more transparent prices than their private-sector counterparts.

If any city should be able to pursue and fund a public open access fiber network, you'd think it would be tech-obsessed and hugely wealthy San Francisco. That was the thinking of Mark Farrell when he took his seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 2010. He spent several years trying to convince his fellow city residents that an open-access, wholesale fiber network (where private ISPs come in and compete in layers on top) would improve life (and business) immeasurably in the city. But as with so many efforts, his plan ran face first into a buzzsaw of telecom industry lobbying:

"In fact, angel investor Ron Conway, one of San Francisco techdom’s best-connected figures, contributed $15,000 to two supervisors who then argued against the proposal, according to reporting by 48 Hills and the San Francisco Chronicle. SF.citi, a tech-heavy industry group, that included Conway and two AT&T executives on its board, lobbied hard against Farrell. And Comcast lobbyist Scott Adams made 16 visits to City Hall between late 2014 and 2017 to discuss matters relating to broadband deployment, according to records at San Francisco’s Ethics Commission.

“They came up with every excuse in the book; from large costs to the fact that their companies could provide that low-income access,” Farrell says. “If it had come to a vote we would have won.” But it never did come to a vote, and once Farrell left office, the project was quietly shelved.

The high costs of such deployments often scare voters away, but San Francisco's plan never even got that far. And while the high costs of such deployments are certainly something to consider, few realize that we're already doling out billions to entrenched telecom operators who do little to nothing of public benefit in the first place. AT&T, for example, just received $20 billion (plus $3 billion annually in perpetuity) from the Trump tax cuts, and its response so far has been to fire employees. Taxpayers have thrown incalculable billions at these providers for decades in exchange for broadband networks only sparsely deployed.

In short the public is already paying an arm and a leg for broadband both in their monthly bills and in the tax breaks and subsidies thrown at giants like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T for doing little to nothing of substantive benefit. If even half of those resources had gone to, say, lobbying reform or well-crafted community broadband efforts, data suggests these cities would already be reaping the benefits of better, cheaper, and faster broadband.

Filed Under: broadband, isp, san francisco


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  • identicon
    Dave, 4 Apr 2019 @ 2:34pm

    Big corporations have spies in pretty much every facet of life, and will obviously and immediately pounce on anything that even remotely threatens their obscene profits.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Apr 2019 @ 4:38pm

    Douglas Adams almost had it right

    The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy defines the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as "a bunch of mindless jerks who'll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes," with a footnote to the effect that the editors would welcome applications from anyone interested in taking over the post of robotics correspondent. Curiously enough, an edition of the Encyclopedia Galactica that had the good fortune to fall through a time warp from a thousand years in the future defined the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation as "a bunch of mindless jerks who were the first against the wall when the revolution came."

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Richard Bennett, 4 Apr 2019 @ 6:07pm

    Bodey McBodeface lies! Drink! Drink! DRINK!!!

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

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 4 Apr 2019 @ 7:27pm

      Re:

      Did you shit your pants again today dickie?

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

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 4 Apr 2019 @ 7:48pm

        Re: Re:

        Please try not to sink to their level of childishness(as tempting as it may be), as it's bad enough when they do it, don't need more people following suit.

        That said, auto-flag any posts using the name but not the account to post, as it's either a troll pretending to be them, or the real deal trying to gain plausible deniability. In either case it's not someone posting in good faith, and should be flagged/hidden as a result.

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

  • identicon
    TDR, 4 Apr 2019 @ 8:37pm

    We don't need lobbying reform, we need lobbying elimination.

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

    • icon
      Wendy Cockcroft (profile), 5 Apr 2019 @ 5:15am

      Re:

      Eh, that'd affect those of us who want to engage with our critters. Better to make a law about restricting campaign finance and media adverts. If the lobbyists can't make it worth a politician's while to dance to their tune we'll have better, cleaner politics.

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

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 5 Apr 2019 @ 8:55am

        Re: Re:

        Agreed.
        We do need to help them in their quest for world domination, removing your right to petition your government is just one step in their long journey.

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

        • identicon
          TDR, 5 Apr 2019 @ 9:27am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Lobbying is not merely petitioning your government or talking to your rep. Eliminating it would not prevent you from doing those things. Lobbying is companies paying politicians to do what they want them to do rather than serve their constituents. In essence, legalized bribery. And that is what has to go.

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

          • icon
            Thad (profile), 5 Apr 2019 @ 10:38am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            That's often the form it takes, but that's not the definition of lobbying.

            The EFF is a lobbying group too. So's the ACLU. Would you like to shut down their efforts to influence Congress?

            Wendy is right. The answer isn't to ban all lobbying, it's to restrict what lobbyists are allowed to do.

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

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    icon
    Appentus (profile), 5 Apr 2019 @ 5:41am

    Thank you for the very effective <a href="https://appentus.com/">blog</a&gt;. I am really impressed with you for the selecting of a new and unique topic and also a well-written article on it. Thanks for sharing with us. We appreciate that please keep going to write more content...

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

  • identicon
    john, 5 Apr 2019 @ 10:07am

    broadband

    city of hillsboro laying pipe for broadband NOW!

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Apr 2019 @ 3:29pm

    I did not think you could even get DSL any more. When my DSL provider shut down their service a few years ago, that is one of the things that put on my online radio station off the air, as well as higher copyright rates.

    I thought DSL was a dead technology

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


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