Think local: The struggle for municipal broadband

Who wants to legislate bans on municipal broadband? The big ISPs and the politicians they bankroll

broadband laptop ethernet cable connection
Credit: Flickr/photosteve101

It's safe to bet telecom companies aren't happy with the way 2015 has started. Last week FCC chairman Tom Wheeler aligned with President Barack Obama in support of strong Net neutrality rules, and this week Obama came out swinging against state laws that limit municipal broadband.

The prospect of an open Internet and competition in broadband services may send a frisson of horror through the telecom industry, but consumers and businesses that rely on the Internet can cheer these developments.

Speaking in Cedar Falls, Iowa, Obama flayed telecom giants that have lobbied states for a ban on public networks. "In too many places across America, some big companies are doing everything they can to keep out competitors," he said. As a result, 19 states have "laws on the books that stamp out competition and make it really difficult for communities to provide their own broadband."

Obama argued that municipal broadband "is not a red or blue issue" -- noting that residents of Yuma County, Colo., voted in November to add a community broadband service "even while voting 85 percent in favor of a Republican state senator." And he lauded the Iowa city for building a municipal network that provides speeds of up to 1Gbps. "You're 100 times faster than the national average, and you can log on at about the same price as a fully loaded cable bundle," Obama said.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association was swift to decry the unfairness of local governments competing with private companies and trotted out the obligatory statement about its members having spent more than $230 billion over the past 20 years to extend and upgrade their broadband networks. Some would call that a cost of doing business -- for which those companies have reaped ample rewards -- and not a rationale for a monopoly. It also ignores the hundreds of billions of dollars that government has given telecoms in return for promises to deliver open fiber optic connections to schools and rural communities -- promises they for the most part have not kept (although they kept the money).

As Bruce Kushnick, author of "The Book of Broken Promises," recently wrote:

As of January 5th, 2015, America is now 26th in the world in broadband download speeds and 44th in upload speeds, and we've paid over and over and over again for upgrades that were never done, including the wiring of schools. We collectively paid about $400 billion to have the phone networks upgraded to fiber optics, and the cablecos' collected over $50 billion extra since 2000 under something called the 'Social Contract,' which was supposed to wire the schools. Meanwhile, Time Warner and Comcast's profit margins on high speed Internet were 97 percent in 2013, and there have been continuous rate increases for over 20+ years on cable service.

Ironically, FCC Commissioner Michael O'Reilly opposes preempting state laws that ban municipal broadband. His reasoning: "This debate is about preempting a state's right to prevent taxpayer rip-offs."

Preventing taxpayer rip-offs is no doubt also behind newly proposed legislation in Missouri that would prevent municipalities from competing against private ISPs. It couldn't possibly have anything to do with CenturyLink reportedly objecting to a city broadband plan in Columbia, Mo.

"The state of Missouri is the latest legislature to attempt to erect barriers to the deployment of broadband networks that are critical to the future of its local economies and the nation," said the Coalition for Local Internet Choice. "It is ironic that while the International CES show in Las Vegas spotlighted hundreds of new devices and applications that require big bandwidth, legislation would be introduced in Missouri that would impair the development of networks that enable that bandwidth."

Private ISPs seemingly must be defended from municipal broadband even in places where they have no interest in providing service. Last year Republican State Senator Julia Lynn unsuccessfully proposed outlawing community broadband in Kansas. The bill was aimed at the town of Chanute, which was interested in offering gigabit services to residents. City officials approached AT&T about installing a fiber optic network in Chanute in 2009, but AT&T showed no interest, according to Chanute Utilities Director Larry Gates. Sometimes, necessity is also the mother of fiber Internet service.

"You can't survive today without fast Internet," Deb Socia, executive director of Next Generation Cities, a bipartisan coalition of 55 cities, told Computerworld. "Our group talks about broadband as a people issue and not a partisan issue," Socia said.

The FCC is reportedly scheduled to vote on petitions to invalidate state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina on Feb. 26, the same day it is also expected to vote on a proposal to reclassify broadband as a Title II public utility.

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