Washington State Votes To Kill Law That Restricted Community Broadband

from the pass-go,-collect-your-$200 dept

For years a growing number of US towns and cities have been forced into the broadband business thanks to US telecom market failure. Frustrated by high prices, lack of competition, spotty coverage, and terrible customer service, some 750 US towns and cities have explored some kind of community broadband option. And while the telecom industry routinely likes to insist these efforts always end in disaster, that's never actually been true. While there certainly are bad business plans and bad leaders, studies routinely show that such services not only see the kind of customer satisfaction scores that are alien to large private ISPs, they frequently offer better, faster service at lower, more transparent pricing than many dominant broadband providers.

Hoping to thwart this organic community response to market failure, big ISPs like AT&T and Comcast have waged a multi-pronged, several decade attack on such efforts: (1) by lobbying for (and usually ghost writing) protectionist laws in roughly 19 states either hamstringing or banning cities from building their own networks, and (2) by funding economists, consultants, and think tankers (usually via proxy organizations) happy to try and claim that community broadband is always a taxpayer boondoggle -- unnecessary because private sector US broadband is just that wonderful.

These arguments were always fairly flimsy, but they've proven particularly hollow during the pandemic, which has showcased how 42 million Americans still lack access to broadband, and another 83 million Americans currently live under a broadband monopoly (usually Comcast). Motivated by the fact these state restrictions make no sense, Washington State this week voted to eliminate their own, 20-year-old state restrictions on community broadband:

While Washington State's law allowed some municipal broadband, it prohibited locally owned utilities from offering broadband directly to consumers. State Representative Drew Hansen told me eliminating the restrictions should open the door to a bit more competition in the state (I live in Seattle (aka Silicon Valley North) and Comcast is currently my only option):

"Washington was one of only 18 states that restricted local governments from serving the public by providing public broadband,” Hansen told Motherboard. “My bill eliminates that restriction."

Other states, like Tennessee have similar restrictions lobbied for by incumbents like AT&T and Comcast. In Chattanooga, the local utility EPB has repeatedly been awarded for offering some of the fastest, cheapest fiber optic broadband in America. But thanks to state laws effectively bought by monopolists, the utility can't expand access to consumers outside its existing utility footprint. In some states, these laws simply make community broadband a costly, bureaucratic nightmare. In others, such networks are banned entirely.

If entrenched broadband providers really wanted to thwart such options, they'd simply offer faster, cheaper service. Instead, they've found it more cost effective to buy laws restricting the options, even if local community members want to vote for it. They've also spent countless dollars spreading a lot of nonsense and bile about how community broadband is "socialism" or an "inevitable taxpayer boondoggle." But again, these efforts are an organic, grass roots community response to decades of monopoly-pampering government policies (aka regulatory capture and corruption) and regional monopolization.

Should Washington Governor Jay Inslee sign the law, that will be the second such law eliminated so far this year (after Arkansas rolled back many of its own restrictions last February). That still leaves 17 states that thought protecting telecom monopoly revenues was more important than embracing local, creative efforts to drive access to better, faster, cheaper broadband. But given that COVID is busy showcasing the hollowness of the opposition to community broadband, it seems likely that additional states could soon follow suit.

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Filed Under: broadband, community broadband, competition, washington


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  • icon
    smbryant (profile), 15 Apr 2021 @ 7:19am

    Now we just have to hope that Inslee signs the Hansen bill rather than the Wellman bill. I haven't heard anything about which way he's likely to go.

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

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 15 Apr 2021 @ 7:32am

    Sen. Blackburn put out a tweet someone should find & pass around more.

    'Americans are flocking to Tennessee because we stand for FREEDOM and the AMERICAN way! We refuse to lock down and tell folks how to live their life. We value and trust Tennesseans to make personal choices for themselves.'

    Unless your personal choice is not to be bent over by corporations for broadband, then we have a law telling you you can't have better cheaper service because mother knows best, because she helped shove that ghostwritten law onto those freedom loving americans for a few coins of silver in her coffers.

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

  • icon
    Rico R. (profile), 15 Apr 2021 @ 8:26am

    [Entrenched broadband providers have] also spent countless dollars spreading a lot of nonsense and bile about how community broadband is "socialism"...

    I could see arguments for why community broadband could be socialism. I could also see arguments why it's not socialism. But even if it is socialism, that's a problem because why?

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

    • identicon
      TFG, 15 Apr 2021 @ 8:31am

      Re:

      Because "socialism" is a scare-word used by people to make others who don't truly understand the term afraid of things that will help them. You hear "socialism" and you think of: "a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole."

      Or perhaps, more simply, "policies that provide needed support for the general populace using community resources, to the betterment of the community as a whole."

      Meanwhile, the people that the word is being used to scare off see "socialism" and think "slippery slope to evil Communist Dictatorships like the USSR and China!"

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

      • icon
        smbryant (profile), 15 Apr 2021 @ 8:50am

        Re: Re:

        Nah, you're giving them way too much credit.

        They see "socialism" and think "somebody I look down on is getting something I don't think they deserve".

        It's that simple.

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

        • identicon
          TFG, 15 Apr 2021 @ 9:25am

          Re: Re: Re:

          It's that simple.

          Except, no, it's not. People are never that simple.
          There is absolutely a group of people for whom "they're getting what I don't think they deserve" is true.

          There's also people who will support charities and donate their own time, yet will oppose "socialism" politically. These are the people that I refer to.

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

        • icon
          David (profile), 15 Apr 2021 @ 10:39am

          Re: Re: Re:

          In this case, people will be paying for the service. If the costs aren't subsidized by the government then it isn't socialism. Based on what I've read about other communities that have done this, the costs and services can be better without the community using tax money.

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

    • icon
      David (profile), 15 Apr 2021 @ 10:32am

      The ISPs calling government provided internet socialism makes it sound like they endorse capitalism. Having the government protect their monopoly certainly isn't capitalism.

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

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Apr 2021 @ 9:12am

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

  • icon
    David (profile), 15 Apr 2021 @ 10:46am

    A step in the right direction

    This is a step in the right direction. Next, they need to open the market to true competition. If they did that, they wouldn't have to get into the ISP business. In my case, I have the option of AT&T or Comcast. That's it. That isn't enough to create competition.

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


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