Ohio Republicans Are Using State Budget Battle To Kill Community Broadband

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

Frustrated by high prices, a lack of competition, spotty coverage, and terrible customer service, some 750 US towns and cities have built some form of community owned and operated broadband network. While not some silver bullet, studies have shown these networks often provider faster, cheaper, better service than most apathetic regional telecom monopolies. They also tend to put money back into the local community, as well as being somewhat more accountable given they're run by folks with a vested interest in the community they live in.

Instead of preventing such efforts by offering better, faster, cheaper service, giant regional mono/duopolies ISPs like AT&T, Charter, and Comcast have historically found it cheaper to write and lobby easily corruptible state lawmakers. There are currently laws in 17 states either hamstringing or outright banning cities from building their own networks, almost all of them ghost written by industry.

As COVID highlighted the essential nature of broadband, some states have realized the counterproductive nature of such proposals. For example Arkansas and Washington both eliminated their state restrictions earlier this year, arguing that such creative, local niche solutions can go a long way in shoring up access and lowering prices.

But Ohio is taking a different tack. State Republicans embedded a new amendment in the state budget earlier this month that would effectively outlaw community broadband in the state. The provision is so unpopular among consumers, none of the Republicans pushing for it are willing to affix their name to it:

"On June 9, the Ohio Senate approved a new budget bill. But a last-minute amendment shoveled into the bill is angering state residents and locally-owned ISPs, who say it’s an underhanded effort by AT&T and Charter to protect their regional broadband monopolies...Ohio’s restrictions were implemented without any public notice or input. One local Cleveland outlet noted that the effort is so unpopular, Ohio Republicans sponsoring the amendment are refusing to even officially acknowledge their support.

Like many ISP-backed proposals, it's a "death by a thousand cuts" approach that pretends to not be an outright ban. The Ohio restrictions would for example prohibit the building of any community broadband in areas where 10 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up broadband is already available. But such a standard doesn't even meet the FCC's already fairly pathetic definition of broadband (25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up), and given that expensive, capped satellite broadband is available in most areas, it allows a regional cable broadband monopoly like Charter to proclaim most places as already "served," and therefore bans community broadband.

The restrictions also prohibit any community-owned and operated ISP from utilizing taxpayer resources (even if voters wanted to), as well as prohibiting such operations from using federal money to fund operations (something that undermines the point of many COVID relief initiatives, and attempts to scuttle planned community broadband funding in the looming Biden broadband plan). While nobody wants to acknowledge their support of the amendment, several Ohio lawmakers previously worked on government policy and lobbying for Time Warner Cable, now Charter.

If you sit down with most voters and ask them whether Comcast or AT&T should be dictating what their town or city can or can't do with their own infrastructure and resources, they'd quite correctly tell you that AT&T and Comcast should go to hell. So instead, large ISPs hire an army of economists, consultants, and think tankers (usually via dodgy proxy organizations with names like "Very Sincere Taxpayer Lovers United") happy to try and claim that community broadband is always a taxpayer boondoggle -- unnecessary because private sector US broadband is just that innovative and wonderful.

Most of these critics fixate relentlessly on the idea that community broadband is "government run amok" (it's not) or "socialism" (it's not, many such efforts are public/private partnerships or utility backed), while ignoring that incumbent ISPs like AT&T are not only bone grafted to the government (see: the NSA) but get countless billions in tax cuts, subsidies, and regulatory favors in exchange for fiber networks that always mysteriously wind up half deployed.

As in, these telecom-backed stunt policy groups and consultants really care about taxpayer waste when it's a frustrated town and city forced to get into the broadband business due to market failure, yet disappear from the conversation entirely when it comes to discussing how far, far more state and federal taxpayer money is going to giant national ISPs which then waste it with minimal accountability.

But honestly Ohio Republicans couldn't even be bothered to take this usual disingenuous route. They just shoveled Charter and AT&T's agenda into a budget bill without telling the public, and hoped nobody would really notice. The Ohio House and Senate now have until June 30 to reconcile House and Senate budget bills and strip out the offending language. Local community owned ISPs like Fairlawn Gig (which runs on the back of a local utility) are begging Ohio residents to call their representatives to complain, but it's not sure their concerns will be heard over the din of the daily US news cycle.

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Filed Under: community broadband, competition, ohio

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