21 states have passed laws hamstringing the rights of local communities when it comes to improving broadband infrastructure. Usually dressed up as breathless concern about the taxpayer — these bills have one purpose: protect the telecom mono/duopoly status quo — and the campaign contributions it represents — from the will of the people. Countless towns and cities have built their own next-generation networks, usually because nobody else would. But these bills, usually ghost written by ISPs for politicians with ALEC’s help, either ban locals from making this decision for themselves, or saddle these operations with enough restrictions to make them untenable.
Missouri’s just the latest state to either pass a new protectionist bill, or update old laws so they’re more restrictive. Like many of these bills SB 186 does its best to impose all manner of restrictions on towns and cities looking to bring better broadband to under-served state communities. SB 186 is actually the third time in as many years that incumbent ISPs have tried to pass expanded community broadband restrictions. Last year, a similar Missouri bill got “unwanted” attention when AT&T got a lawmaker to try and bury it in an unrelated traffic proposal.
Like the last few iterations, SB 186 words itself in such a way to avoid the impression of an outright community broadband “ban,” even if that’s effectively what it is. Usually this is done by stating a community can’t build and operate a broadband network if an existing provider already services the area, intentionally ignoring the fact that said “existing provider” is usually a fat and lazy telco trying to sell users 2002-era 3 Mbps DSL speeds at next-generation prices. SB 186 also saddles these operations with all manner of restrictions on how these networks can be funded, marketed, and expanded.
Often, the bills require a protracted additional public comment period, during which deep-pocketed lobbyists use push polls and other disinformation to convince locals that community broadband is one step up from devil worship, even if it’s really just an organic reaction to telecom market failure. The history of these disinformation efforts goes back decades, with ISPs resorting to push polls with questions implying that taxpayer funds would be used for pornography, and government would ration your TV usage.
Should the networks actually get built, they’ll then often face incumbent ISP lawsuits. When said lawsuits inevitably saddle these local efforts with delays and added costs, ISPs are quick to point to the problems they caused as proof positive that community broadband doesn’t work. But community broadband is like any business plan: if the plan itself is sound, the network succeeds (as is the case in places like Chattanooga, Tennessee).
Historically, most of the twenty-one protectionist state laws have been passed quietly with minimal controversy, in large part thanks to an either misinformed or apathetic public. But as companies like Google and Ting have more recently attempted to disrupt the telecom market, reporters have highlighted not only the lack of broadband competition — but the protectionist laws responsible for keeping things that way. Last month, Google, Netflix and Ting fired off a letter to Missouri lawmakers (pdf) highlighting the absurdity of such laws:
“SB 186 would amount to a virtual ban on local choice, harming both the public and private sectors, stifling economic growth, preventing the creation or retention of jobs around the State, particularly in rural areas, hampering work-force development, and diminishing the quality of life in Missouri.
In particular, SB 186 will hurt the private sector by derailing or unnecessarily complicating and delaying public-private partnerships, by interfering with the ability of private companies to make timely sales of equipment and services to public broadband providers, by denying private companies timely access to advanced networks over which they can offer business and residential customers an endless array of modern products and services, and by impairing economic and educational opportunities that contribute to a skilled workforce from which businesses across the state will benefit.”
The companies also point out that, hey, maybe local infrastructure decisions should be left up to locals, not AT&T, Comcast, CenturyLink and other ISP lawyers and lobbyists with a vested interest in turf protection:
“These are fundamentally local decisions that should be made by the communities themselves, through the processes that their duly elected and accountable local officials ordinarily use for making comparable decisions. They should also be able to use their own resources as they deem appropriate to foster economic development, educational opportunity, public safety, and much more, without having to comply with the restrictive bottlenecks that SB 186 would impose.”
ISPs seriously worried about towns and cities getting into the broadband business could have pre-empted these efforts by offering better service at better prices. But given the pay-to-play nature of most state legislatures, it’s much easier to just throw money at politicians, who’ll happily throw the public interest — and their state’s economic welfare — in the toilet to fund their next election campaign.