For years we've noted how 19 states have effectively let companies like AT&T and Comcast write protectionist state broadband laws
to protect the status quo. Such laws usually either block or hamstring frustrated communities looking to build their own broadband networks, or in some instances from striking public/private agreements with companies like Google Fiber. Last year the FCC finally started paying attention to such bans, stating
it intends to use Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to preempt restrictions conflicting with its Congressional mandate to ensure even broadband deployment.
The FCC's action specifically targeted bans in both Tennessee and North Carolina, both states where incumbent telecom lobbyists quite literally control state legislatures. Both states' dysfunction on this front is legendary
, yet both chose to sue the FCC in court to, they claim, defend "states rights" from federal government "overreach" (defending state residents from shitty telecom law written by lobbyists isn't much of a concern).
North Carolina has been a particular joke on this front, with Time Warner Cable successfully getting its own protectionist legislation passed in 2011, after three consecutive failed attempts
. The "Level Playing Field/Local Gov't Competition Act" saddled towns looking to improve local broadband infrastructure with all manner of limits
on how they could build, price, and sell broadband service -- simply to protect lazy incumbent ISPs:
"Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit economic and community development consulting group, disagreed with Avila. He said if the bill in North Carolina is signed, he’d classify it as a de-facto ban on community broadband networks, given the wide breadth of restrictions in the bill.
"I don’t believe you’ll see any community surpass the hurdles to build a network if this bill passes,” Mitchell said. “The number of barriers will make it all but impossible.”
Fast forward to this week, and North Carolina unveiled its new state broadband plan
(pdf), which aims to bring "universal access" to broadband for all North Carolina residents by 2021. As we saw with our national broadband plan
, such plans are historically hollow, designed to give the impression political leaders are actually bridging the digital divide, while ignoring the lack of competition that results in US broadband residents paying some of the highest rates for broadband in the developed world. The real plan for most governments? Let deep-pocketed telecom campaign contributors have everything they want
North Carolina's plan is no different, but at several points oddly tries to applaud activism by communities sick and tired of stagnant broadband duopolies:
"Through the course of writing the plan, two common themes emerged: active and engaged communities and their partnerships with private sector internet service providers are the biggest factors in bridging existing digital divides. Therefore, the plan’s recommendations encourage communities to be active participants in the development process.
Well, unless you support state laws actively and violently preventing them from doing that, right? The plan summary at one point does point out that the state's horrible protectionist law exists, but isn't politically courageous enough to actually recommend eliminating it as a serious impediment to state improvement. The plan's executive summary continues to ignore the state's responsibility in helping to keep broadband coverage gaps intact:
"However, broadband’s benefits are not evenly dispersed and a digital divide, or “a gulf between those who have ready access to the internet and computers,”i and those that don’t, is growing. Many communities, typically in sparsely populated or economically-distressed areas lack access to infrastructure or affordable service. Additionally, broadband adoption—the proportion of citizens subscribing to internet service—is low in NC given the rate of broadband availability in the state and contributes to the widening digital divide.
In every state, there are areas where incumbent ISPs refuse to reach because it's just not profitable enough, quickly enough
for investor-loyal ISPs. That's why local communities have often been forced to either build their own networks, or lean on a public/private partnership. The end result was municipal broadband networks like Greenlight out of Wilson, North Carolina
, which was willing to fill in those gaps -- but found itself suddenly unable to expand and hamstrung by North Carolina's protectionist state broadband law. North Carolina's plan fails to seriously address this.
This same kind of nonsense is occurring in state after state, with politicians breathlessly declaring that even broadband deployment is a priority, then turning around and supporting protectionist laws that do little beyond keeping stagnant broadband duopolies intact. If ISPs don't want communities getting into the broadband business, they should offer better, cheaper service. And if states want to truly support even broadband deployment, step one needs to be to stop letting mega-ISP lobbyists write shitty state telecom law.