Big carriers go political to kill local broadband

Major telcos are afraid that locally owned FTTH deployments will cut into their fat profits, so they seek to cripple competitors

When Time Warner and Embarq (now named CenturyLink) couldn't provide affordable, high-speed broadband, the residents of Wilson, a small town in North Carolina, decided to do it themselves. In 2006, Wilson built a municipally owned fiber-to-the home network that offers television, telephone, and broadband services at relatively low cost.

In response, Time Warner cut rates and boosted speeds a bit -- but that's not all. The cable giant, along with allies AT&T and CenturyLink, poured more than $1 million into the campaign coffers of North Carolina politicians, according to a report by Common Cause and the ILSR (Institute for Local Self Reliance). In 2011, the lobbying effort paid off: The state legislature passed a bill making it nearly impossible for other communities to build their own broadband networks.

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North Carolina is hardly alone; 18 other states also have yielded to lobbying efforts by cable and telecom giants and passed similar legislation. The legislature of a 20th state, Kansas, is currently debating a law that would squelch local broadband projects there as well. And there's a bill pending in the Utah state legislature that would forbid a regional fiber consortium from expanding beyond the 16 cities it is currently authorized to serve with FTTH (fiber to the home) networks.

The United States lags far behind other developed countries in deployment of FTTH. So you'd think that the carriers would line up to provide it. After all, the economic benefits of high-speed Internet are well documented, and there's clearly a lot of demand.

But the providers have been very slow to make the necessary investments, which makes their campaign to stop cities and towns from going it alone all the more galling.

The carriers' lobbying pays off
As reported by Ars Technica, Kansas is now considering a law restraining the development of municipal broadband that would be even more draconian than most of the ones already on the books in other states.

"The language in this bill prohibits not only networks that directly offer services, but even public-private partnerships and open access approaches. This is the kind of language one would expect to see if the goal is to protect politically powerful cable and telephone company monopolies rather than just limiting local authority to deliver services," Christopher Mitchell, a co-author of the North Carolina report, wrote in a recent blog post.

The language is so vague that it could conceivably ban broadband projects like the Google Fiber efforts under way in Kansas City, Mo., and Austin, Texas.

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