For more than fifteen years now, companies like Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink have quite literally paid state legislatures
to write protectionist broadband laws. These laws, passed in around 20 states, protect the incumbent duopoly from the faintest specter of broadband competition -- by preventing towns and cities from either building their own broadband networks, or from striking public/private partnerships to improve lagging broadband networks. They're the worst sort of protectionism, written by ISPs and pushed by ALEC and ISP lobbyists
to do one thing: protect industry revenues.
Despite the fact the laws strip away citizen rights to decide local infrastructure matters for themselves (because really, who better to decide your town's needs than AT&T or Comcast executives), ISPs for more than a decade managed to forge division by framing this as a partisan issue. But then something changed: companies like Google Fiber and Tucows
began highlighting how public/private partnerships are actually a great way to fill in the broadband gaps left by an apathetic, uncompetitive broadband duopoly.
After fifteen years of napping, the FCC also jumped into the fray
and began fighting these laws in two states (Tennessee and North Carolina), arguing they hindered the FCC's mandate to ensure even and speedy broadband deployment. The broadband industry responded by having loyal politicians like Marsha Blackburn run
to defend these bills, purportedly "outraged" by the FCC's "assault on states' rights" (please note that incumbent ISPs being allowed to write horrible state telecom law
did not cause the slightest offense).
And with a brighter spotlight being shined on these laws, the partisan division encouraged by the broadband industry is mysteriously beginning to fade away. In Tennessee, lawmakers have been pushing a law that would dismantle AT&T's version of the law in that state
, which has stopped a popular Chattanooga municipal gigabit provider (EPB) from expanding. Lawmakers pushing the bill appear to now be realizing just how destructive AT&T's lobbying apparatus has been to broadband, and aren't mincing words:
"We're talking about AT&T," Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, bluntly told a rally of business owners, families and local officials gathered in the state Capitol. "They're the most powerful lobbying organization in this state by far." The bill has been opposed for years by AT&T, Comcast and other providers who say it's unfair for them to have to compete with government entities like EPB. But EPB, as well as some lawmakers like Gardenhire, say if the free market isn't providing the service, someone else should. "Don't fall for the argument that this is a free market versus government battle," Gardenhire said. "It is not. AT&T is the villain here, and so are the other people and cable."
AT&T's response to Tennessee's sudden realization that the company has actively worked to ensure the state remains a broadband backwater? Give a lecture on how taxpayer money is fine to throw at AT&T, but is wasteful to use on delivering broadband to areas AT&T refuses to serve or upgrade:
AT&T spokesman Daniel Hayes said in an email "it is incorrect to equate the common practice of government providing incentives to encourage private-sector behavior with the concept of direct government competition."..."Generating significant amounts of public debt to sustain municipal networks is a different animal," Hayes added. "Taxpayer money should not be used to over-build or compete with the private sector, which has a proven history of funding, building, operating and upgrading broadband networks. Policies that discourage private-sector investment put at risk the world-class broadband infrastructure American consumers deserve and enjoy today."
The problem with that argument: that "proven history" isn't real. Companies like AT&T and Verizon have taken billions in subsidies
over the years from federal and local governments, then failed repeatedly
to meet deployment obligations. Companies like AT&T are now focusing all their attention on wireless and, outside of high-end development communities
, have frozen deployment of fixed-line broadband. In fact, these companies are looking to disconnect
millions of DSL customers they don't want to upgrade, potentially resulting in greater broadband gaps than ever before. Yet here the company is, still lecturing locals desperately looking for better connectivity on how only AT&T has the solution for what ails them
Here's the thing about municipal broadband: if broadband providers don't want towns and cities getting into the broadband business, the solution is simple: provide better, faster, and cheaper broadband. These residents and local businesses aren't jumping into often pricey and labor-intensive broadband projects because they think it's fun
. They're doing so because the entrenched broadband providers are refusing to upgrade their networks, and waiting for mono/duopolies with no competitive incentive to upgrade has proven to be a fool's errand.
And while incumbent carriers for years successfully fueled partisan division to ensure nobody really stopped and thought about
what companies like AT&T were doing, as the years pass and many remain stuck on last-generation DSL -- the whiff of lobbyist bullshit has begun to hang more heavily in the air. As a result, locals in many areas are finally waking up from AT&T's trance, and realizing that if they're ever going to get next-generation broadband in a market without real competition, they very well may have to be the ones to build it.