For many, many more years than I'd like, I've argued that if we want to even begin
to fix U.S. broadband, we need to start by taking a look at the awful, protectionist laws passed in nearly two-dozen states
that hinder or outright ban communities from improving their own broadband infrastructure, even in cases where private industry has refused to. These laws, in nearly every instance written by ISP lawyers, also frequently hinder towns and cities from cooperating in public/private partnerships in areas particularly harmed by broadband market failure. They're often passed under the pretense that companies like Comcast, AT&T, CenturyLink or Time Warner Cable are just extra super worried about the American taxpayer
For the second time in as many months, Obama has again poured a little gasoline on the FCC and a hot-button broadband conversation topic after belatedly calling for Title II reclassification
back in November. This week The White House released a report
(pdf) throwing the President's full support behind a push to kill off these awful laws, while pressuring the FCC to do the same. The report highlights how community broadband is the perfect tonic for market failure, and a great place to start in terms of improving lagging, uncompetitive U.S. networks:
"In markets where private competition is anemic, whether because of regulatory barriers to entry or the high fixed costs of infrastructure investment, town and cities can build their own middle-mile networks and offer competitive access to the private sector, as Scott County, MN has done. Or municipalities can provide service directly to consumers, like in Chattanooga, TN. In either case, municipalities are creating more choices for consumers, fostering competition and creating opportunities for economic growth. Municipal broadband is often a logical choice for towns and cities that are already served by a municipal electric utility, since infrastructure costs can be shared across those two services, just as private cable companies leveraged their networks to provide Internet service."
Back in July, FCC boss Tom Wheeler responded to petitions from several community-run ISPs
(pdf) by stating the agency would be taking a long, hard look
at these state laws as part of their mandate to ensure broadband is deployed on a "reasonable and timely basis." That's why, as we've been noting, the FCC has been amping up efforts to show this simply hasn't been happening
. Wheeler, bucking expectations of fealty to his lobbyist past, has been highlighting frequently how roughly two-thirds of the country is unable to get more than one ISP that can provide speeds of 25 Mbps or higher.
Ignoring their own failures, ISPs and hired friends are quick to point out the municipal broadband projects that haven't worked (because like any business plan, some don't work), while ignoring areas (like Chattanooga, TN, Wilson, NC or Lafayette, LA) where these efforts are not only paying great dividends, they're motivating incumbent ISPs to improve their services. Opponents of these projects like to ignore the most salient point of all: communities wouldn't be getting into the broadband business if the existing market was working. If at any point in the last fifteen years these folks really
wanted to stop these efforts, they could have improved services. Instead, they've taken the cheaper route: lobbying
After Wheeler's latest comments, Incumbent ISPs threatened to sue if the government dares to dismantle their state-built empires of protectionist legislation. Because the justification for eroding local rights is fundamentally weak at its core and an ugly PR move, they've often waged this battle under the guise of states rights, using groups like The National Conference of State Legislatures
to do the threatening for them. They've also had folks like Rep. Marsha Blackburn to similarly complain that the government is telling states what to do
(you'll notice that letting giant companies write telecom law that hurts these same communities is just fine, however).
That's been a successful ISP tactic in this conversation for years: turn this into a bitter partisan issue. It's simply not. Nobody
but Comcast and AT&T benefit from letting Comcast and AT&T write state law that tramples local rights. In fact, protecting these rights is supposed to be one of the cornerstones of Conservative values. Yet for fifteen years now I've watched as ISPs and their friends incoherently defend these protectionist bills as if they were defending some lofty patriotic ethos, resulting in this debate descending into the kind of bobble-headed partisan bickering this country has made its chief export. That's started to change in the last few years, thanks to projects like Google Fiber. Google Fiber has placed a spotlight squarely on the lack of broadband competition, and has inspired countless communities to realize we really can do better than the stumbling, bumbling duopoly we all know and love.
Unfortunately, beyond giving the FCC some political cover and providing some online guidance to communities, the President's plan isn't much of a plan, especially if we can't start dismantling these state laws. Nineteen are in place now and more are being passed every year; AT&T and friends are currently pushing yet another law in Missouri
aimed at protecting their uncompetitive fiefdoms from, well, you
. While the President's announcement is a welcome start, here's to hoping we don't have to sit through another decade of lobotomized partisan pattycake before finally putting these destructive and ridiculous state laws to bed.