State Laws Restricting Community Broadband Are Hurting US Communities During The Pandemic

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

We've talked for years about how telecom monopolies like Comcast and AT&T have ghost written laws in more than twenty states, banning or hamstringing towns and cities looking to build their own broadband networks. We've also noted with COVID clearly illustrating how broadband is essential for education, opportunity, employment, and healthcare, such restrictions are looking dumber than ever. Voters should have every right to make local infrastructure decisions for themselves, and if big ISPs and armchair free market policy wonks don't want that to happen, incumbent ISPs should provide faster, cheaper, better service.

As the pandemic continues, some cities have found ways around such restrictions -- by focusing more specifically on serving struggling, low income Americans. Texas is one such state that long ago passed municipal restrictions, courtesy of Dallas-based AT&T. AT&T doesn't want to upgrade or repair many of its DSL lines, but it also doesn't want communities upgrading or building networks either lest it become a larger trend (too late). As a result, in San Antonio, an amazing 38% of homes still don't have residential broadband.

The city's existing network can't really expand commercial service thanks to a law written by AT&T. But that law doesn't prohibit the city from servicing the poor by offering free service, something made possible by the recent CARES Act:

"This year in a number of cities, the pandemic has inspired some narrower versions of municipal broadband that get around these restrictions, focused on creating “affordable networks” that specifically target low-income households. Several of these were born out of the immediate need to bridge the homework gap.

“Pre-Covid there were at most a handful of networks being built to address affordability; now, we’ve started informally keeping a list and we’re over 30,” Siefer says. “The phenomena of setting up a network for that reason, in that way, is new."

In San Antonio's case, the city used $27 million in CARES Act funding to expand its existing network to 20,000 students across the city’s 50 most vulnerable neighborhoods. Entrenched monopolies (and the law makers, policy wonks, think tankers, and academics paid to love them) love to insist that such networks are an inevitable taxpayer boondoggle. Yet those same folks never make a solitary peep as we throw massive tax breaks at companies like AT&T for literally doing absolutely nothing. Or billions more at a rotating crop of companies for networks they, time and time and time again, fail to deliver.

The problem is that these community funding solutions are temporary, and lack funding to continue for more than a year or two, despite our very obvious broadband coverage gaps (42 million without service, 83 million locked under a monopoly). The other problem, of course, is that overpriced, slow, and spotty US broadband is the direct result of corruption and monopolization, problems we often refuse to even acknowledge, much less do anything about.

The solutions here aren't complicated, we just don't want to do them. We could easily ask voters if they want to discard the 20+ protectionist laws written by monopolies, letting local citizens decide local infrastructure issues themselves. We could beef up antitrust enforcement, and refuse to rubber stamp mindless telecom mergers that inevitably lead to more consolidation, less competition, and higher prices. We could embrace policies that upset incumbent monopolies by driving additional competition to market. We could reform campaign finance laws so AT&T and Comcast don't all but own countless state legislatures.

But we don't do that. Instead, we let monopolies write state and federal policy and laws with an eye on protecting the status quo. Laws that make disruption by smaller players expensive, cumbersome, and often impossible. We then throw billions of dollars at said monopolies for networks they routinely only half deploy. We rubber stamp harmful mergers and fail to hold monopolies accountable for much of anything. Once that's done, we then stand around with a dumb look on our collective faces wondering why US broadband is utterly mediocre in nearly every single metric that matters.

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Filed Under: broadband, competition, covid, municipal broadband, pandemic, state's rights


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  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 16 Feb 2021 @ 7:04am

    Starlink

    I bet those state laws don't restrict the use of Starlink.

    It would be fun to see them try.

    How much more brazen could they be that they want to prevent any competition.

    In the medium size city where I live, a friend told me he was informed Starlink service is now officially available here. I don't intend to get it, unless things change drastically, but it's nice to have a third option. Some people don't even have that many options.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Feb 2021 @ 7:08am

    My local electricity co-op recently started rolling out fiber:

    -1000mbs Up and down
    -no data caps
    -60% cheaper then the closest Xfinity plan
    -free wifi/router/modem with no equipment lease.

    I consistently get around 500mbs up down when Xfinity couldn't give me 20 on a good day. The only areas that can't get service are where Comcast has "blackout" laws in place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Slow Joe Crow (profile), 16 Feb 2021 @ 10:23am

      Re:

      This is why I like co-ops, they answer to ratepayers rather than hedge funds and focus on services rather than bonuses. The first 100 Mbps service I saw was from a rural telephone co-op in 2014. I wish my electricity co-op did Internet

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    crade (profile), 16 Feb 2021 @ 7:14am

    "We could easily ask voters if they want to discard the 20+ protectionist laws written by monopolies"

    Or you could start by just not giving them any more boatloads of no strings attached tax money

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Feb 2021 @ 7:15am

    I suppose the major reason is that the ones who could do all that are the legislatures AT&T and Comcast all but own.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 16 Feb 2021 @ 7:48am

    The only way we'll see change is if we did something radical.

    If we blinded the ISPs to which accounts were legislators & made them live with the same shit service we get every day in about a week they would be trying to kill these laws.

    The problem is they have special help line numbers & get things we can never have. As long as they are getting theirs the rest of us can just FOAD.

    I've been a big proponent of forcing elected officials to live like the average person the allegedly represent. They are completely disconnected from the world we exist in.

    Imagine what would happen if an elected official got the overage added bonus billing tripling their bill & couldn't call to get it voided or have avoided it in the first place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Glenn, 16 Feb 2021 @ 9:26am

    So, basically, these laws are having their intended effect. With pain comes govt. subsidies to pay for expansions that never happen. Lobbyist job well done!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Feb 2021 @ 11:56am

    while there are 2-faced assholes in politics, who are lining their own pockets from contributions made by the big telecoms companies and those equally 2-faced fuckers working for the various lobbying organisations doing the same, the broadband restrictions are going to remain in place, legally or otherwise. the only way to throw things into a tailspin are to name and shame the politicians who are doing everything they can for these companies are, literally, not a fucking thing for thepeople they are supposed to represent, you know, the people who thought they were doing the right thing, only to find that they have been made twats of! as for the lobbying companies, how many and how often do they throw their weight behind any cause that is of benefit to the people? i dont know the answer, but I'll hazard a guess and say ABSOLUTELY FUCKING NEVER!! they need disbanding and the heads put on platters with captions saying what they have been up to!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 16 Feb 2021 @ 1:06pm

    What you get with pay-2-win politics

    We rubber stamp harmful mergers and fail to hold monopolies accountable for much of anything. Once that's done, we then stand around with a dumb look on our collective faces wondering why US broadband is utterly mediocre in nearly every single metric that matters.

    The biggest problem isn't an inability to learn from the past it's that the politicians passing these laws have learned from the past, and they know full well that playing nice with the major ISP's is very profitable and ensures a steady stream of 'donations'. Add to that that the politicians aren't likely to have to deal with the mediocre if not absent connections that others have to deal with thanks to those laws, and the fact that any would-be politician who campaigns on the idea of reigning in the major ISP's is likely face a well 'funded' opponent in their election(or find themselves surrounded and outnumbered by bought politicians should they get into office) and the gains/costs are very heavily skewed towards keeping the ISPs happy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Cyberkender, 16 Feb 2021 @ 3:52pm

    "State Laws Restricting Community Broadband Are Hurting US Communities"

    There. Fixed the title for you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Mar 2021 @ 11:25am

    And then there's those, low income communities that get overlooked for Cable, fiber, Fast internet, but allow Slow Expensive Dish service or for others like myself have to resort to hotpots or T mobile home internet, Cellular signals for internet.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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