from the this-stuff-can-be-fixed-if-you-care-enough dept
We’ve noted for years how corruption and apathy have resulted in the U.S. broadband sector being heavily monopolized, resulting in 83 million Americans having the choice of just one ISP. Tens of millions more Americans only have the choice of their local cable company or an apathetic local phone company that hasn’t meaningfully upgraded their aging DSL lines in twenty years. On top of that problem is another problem: ISPs routinely bribe or bully apartment, condo, and other real estate owners into providing them cozy exclusivity arrangements that block broadband competition on a block by block level as well.
While the FCC tried to ban such landlord/monopoly ISP shenanigans back in 2006, the rules were poorly crafted. As a result, this stuff still routinely happens, it’s just called…something else (Susan Crawford wrote the definitive piece on this for Wired a few years back).
For example ISPs will still strike deals with landlords banning any other ISP from advertising in the building. Sometimes landlords will still block competitor access to buildings entirely. Or they’ll charge building access fees that unfairly penalize smaller competitors that may not be able to afford them. Or, because the rules prohibit ISPs from blocking access to an ISP’s in building wiring, they’ll just lease these building lines to the landlord, who’ll then block access to competitors on behalf of the monopoly ISP (because technically the landlord now owns them). It’s just noxious, weedy bullshit, and it’s been going on for decades.
While the FCC has recently made a little noise about revisiting the subject, any policymaking there could take years to sluggishly materialize. Like most broadband reform, feckless federal leadership has driven reform to take place at a faster cadence on the local level. In Oakland, for example, the city council just voted to effectively eliminate all landlord/ISP anticompetitive shenanigans to encourage broadband competition:
“Oakland residents shared the stories of their personal experience; a broad coalition of advocates, civil society organizations, and local internet service providers (ISPs) lifted their voices; and now the Oakland City Council has unanimously passed Oakland?s Communications Service Provider Choice Ordinance. The newly minted law frees Oakland renters from being constrained to their landlord’s preferred ISP by prohibiting owners of multiple occupancy buildings from interfering with an occupant’s ability to receive service from the communications provider of their choice.”
The ordinance closely mirrors a similar law passed in San Francisco aimed at ending anticompetitive ISP/landlord schemes. The ordinance kills all kinds of payola nonsense that occurs on this front. If a competitor needs to access the building because a tenant has ordered service, landlords can’t block it (within reason, you still couldn’t install your own giant tower on the rooftop).
Again it wasn’t particularly hard to craft such effective provisions if the willpower is there. But the political influence telecom giants like AT&T and Comcast have on state and federal lawmakers means such willpower is pretty hard to come by. It’s an example of how government regulation in telecom isn’t inherently evil (a telecom industry propped up bogeyman that has informed conventional wisdom for a generation), especially if it’s actively encouraging competition in a heavily monopolized sector where cronyism and corruption are commonplace.