from the protectionism-for-sale dept
Missouri had already passed a 1997 law that hamstrung towns and cities looking to build networks to shore up coverage gaps. But the Missouri state legislature is now pushing some additional restrictions on muni broadband under the banner of HB 2078. HB 2078 comes on the heels of AT&T shoveling a sizable amount of cash into the laps of Missouri state lawmakers, and is necessary -- according to AT&T -- in order to"level the playing field":
"We believe that if a governmental entity seeks to deploy or operate a GON [government operated network] in a market that can be served by the private sector, there should be safeguards in place to ensure a 'level playing field,' which is why we expressed support for HB 2078," AT&T told Ars.Right. Except most of these municipal broadband networks wouldn't be proposed if locals were happy with incumbent broadband services. Communities aren't jumping into the telecom sector because it's fun. They're doing so out of necessity. They're doing so because a lack of broadband competition has left massive coverage and quality gaps nobody is willing to fix. As such, the only thing being "leveled" here are grass roots attempts to shore up obvious market failure. And while framed as a partisan issue, most municipal broadband networks enjoy broad bipartisan support, and are often approved in notably Conservative areas.
Some of these bills ban networks entirely. Some just saddle public or public/private competitors with onerous reporting requirements. Some demand additional public referendum. Usually, as one lawyer notes, it's because companies like AT&T have bottomless pockets in which to bombard towns with negative PR ahead of community votes:
"While municipalities sometimes prevail in such referenda, they are time-consuming and burdensome, making public communications initiatives much more cumbersome than private initiatives,” Baller wrote in an FCC filing in 2014. “Moreover, in most cases, the incumbent communications providers vastly outspend municipalities and dominate the local news through their control of the local cable system.”Over the years these PR assaults have often been downright nasty. On more than one occasion, incumbent ISPs have used push polls to convince locals that approving municipal broadband projects would result in taxpayer-sponsored pornography, the loss of religious programming, or the loss of local jobs. Towns can avoid having a PR and marketing showdown with multi-billion dollar corporations if they meet select obligations set forth by the bills, though the restrictions are designed to be difficult if not impossible to meet:
"I've called these a ‘leprechaun riding on a unicorn bill,’ which is to say, ‘you can do this action if you can bring a leprechaun riding on a unicorn,’ kind of like the whole knights who say Ni who force you to chop down a tree with a herring,” Mitchell said. "The exception for communities where fewer than 50 percent of residents have Internet access is “kind of fascinating,” he said. “It's kind of like, if the private sector is serving 80 percent of the town, the last 20 percent can just suck it.”The FCC took aim at state municipal broadband bans last year, after municipal broadband providers in Tennessee and North Carolina complained that state laws were preventing them from expanding. The FCC argues the restrictions clash with the FCC's Congressional mandate to ensure "reasonable and timely" broadband deployment. AT&T-loyal politicians have countered by claiming the FCC's just a bully attacking states rights. In some places, like Colorado, voters are realizing what these laws actually are and have been rolling them back piecemeal. In most states however residents either don't realize what's happening, or have been distracted by the quite-intentional game of partisan patty cake.
The irony in all of this is that AT&T doesn't really give a damn about most of these areas anyway. The company is hanging up on vast swaths of DSL territory it refuses to upgrade so it can focus on wireless. But after a generation of legacy turf protection, AT&T's lobbying apparatus effectively runs on auto-pilot, attacking any threat to the status quo (read: anything that might force them to upgrade or expand last-generation DSL offered at sky-high prices).
But to shore up broadband coverage in the face of private sector failure, public/private partnerships are an absolutely essential part of the equation. Community broadband bans are little more than greasy cronyism; a throwback to the ma bell era in desperate need of retirement if the country seriously wants to move broadband forward.