New Bill Would Kill State Laws Blocking Broadband Competition
from the Do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept
For years we’ve noted how the United States has spent billions on broadband subsidies, tax breaks, and regulatory favors for major ISPs, only to receive half-completed networks. That’s largely thanks to lobbyists and the captured regulators who love them, resulting in a government that doesn’t do a great job tracking where subsidy money is spent, refuses to seriously police fraud, still doesn’t really know where broadband is or isn’t available, and routinely approves terrible industry consolidating mergers.
The result: the US is mediocre in nearly every major broadband metric that matters — some 42 million US consumers still can’t get any broadband whatsoever, and Americans pay some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world. To fix this will require a deep look in the mirror, some significant campaign finance reform on the state and federal level, and the elimination of a revolving door regulator system that all but ensures the US broadband monopoly problem is perpetuated. Instead of doing that, we routinely try to thrown even more money at the problem in the hopes that this time will surely be different.
Enter the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act (H.R. 7302), which would create an $80 billion fiber infrastructure program run by a new Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth, coordinating the US government’s response to our broadband dysfunction. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, the bill is certainly filled with a lot of good ideas, including the elimination of the 19 state laws giant ISPs have lobbied for (and in many cases literally written) that prohibit or hamstring towns and cities looking to build their own broadband networks, even if the private sector has failed them:
“The bill will also free up local governments to pursue community broadband. The removal of state laws advocated by the major national ISPs that ban local communities from building their own broadband access network is long overdue. The public sector has long ago proven essential to the effort to build universal fiber as rural cooperatives, small cities, and townships are building fiber networks in areas long ago skipped by the private sector.”
There’s a lot of other helpful portions of the bill, including a section that upgrades the standard definition of broadband from 25 Mbps downstream, 4 Mbps upstream, to a more symmetrical 25 Mbps downstream, 25 Mbps upstream. The bill also widely advocates for fiber networks that are “open access,” meaning the construction of fiber networks that can then be shared between multiple ISPs, creating a strange concept known as “competition.” It would also mandate “dig once” rules that would require laying fiber and fiber conduit alongside any new highway build project.
The problem, of course, is that giants like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Charter Spectrum all but own more than half of the current US Congress and current White House leadership, so it’s unlikely to pass in the Senate or be signed into law:
“The big ISPs, which fail to deliver universal access but enjoy comfortable monopolies and charge you prices at 200% to 300% above competitive rates, will resist this effort. Even when it is profitable to deliver fiber, the national ISPs have chosen not to do it in exchange for short-term profits. A massive infrastructure program, the kind that helped countries like South Korea become global leaders in broadband, aren’t just desperately needed in the United States, it is a requirement. No other country on planet Earth has made progress in delivering universal fiber without an infrastructure policy of this type.”
As always, we can’t pass effective broadband laws or ensure we have consistent regulators armed with policies that promote competition because government has been largely corrupted by lobbying and campaign contributions. And, unfortunately, fixing this isn’t likely to happen under the current Congress, even before you get to the whole “raging pandemic and massive pile of resulting debt” thing. Should the bill pass the House, it’s all but certain to meet a swift death in the Senate. A bill like this could eventually be approved, but it’s going to require a massive shakeup in Congress and campaign finance reform first.