So we’ve long mentioned how incumbent ISPs like Comcast have spent millions of dollars quite literally buying shitty, protectionist laws in more than twenty states. These laws either ban or heavily hamstring towns and cities from building their own broadband networks, or in some cases from even engaging in public/private partnerships. It’s a scenario where ISPs get to have their cake and eat it too; they often refuse to upgrade their networks in under-served areas (particularly true among telcos offering DSL), but also get to write shitty laws preventing these under-served towns from doing anything about it.
This dance of dysfunction has been particularly interesting in Colorado, however. While lobbyists for Comcast and CenturyLink managed to convince state leaders to pass such a law (SB 152) in 2005, the legislation contains a provision that lets individual Colorado towns and cities ignore the measure with a simple referendum. With frustration mounting over sub-standard broadband and awful customer service, more than 100 towns and cities have done so thus far.
Late last year in Fort Collins, for example, 57.15% of locals voted to open the door to community-run broadband despite Comcast and Centurylink spending nearly $ 1 million on misleading ads claiming the plan would cause the city to fall into disrepair. And this week, the city council voted unanimously on a plan that will help deliver cheap, ultra-fast (gigabit) fiber broadband to most city residents. Under the proposal, the city will take out a $ 1.8 million loan to help the local utility with startup costs, with expansion funded by bonds:
“Last night’s three unanimous votes begin the process of building our city’s own broadband network,” Glen Akins, a resident who helped lead the pro-municipal broadband campaign, told Ars today. “We’re extremely pleased the entire city council voted to support the network after the voters’ hard fought election victory late last year. The municipal broadband network will make Fort Collins an even more incredible place to live.”
With the Trump administration’s assault on net neutrality, broadband privacy rules and pretty much all meaningful oversight of telecom duopolies, interest in these kinds of creative solutions as an escape from the broken telecom market is only going to grow. In Fort Collins, a city planning document indicates the city is promising to operate a network that actually adheres to net neutrality and avoid usage caps:
“The network will deliver a ‘net-neutral’ competitive unfettered data offering that does not impose caps or usage limits on one use of data over another (i.e., does not limit streaming or charge rates based on type of use). All application providers (data, voice, video, cloud services) are equally able to provide their services, and consumers’ access to advanced data opens up the marketplace.”
ISP lobbyists, executives, and their paid policy parrots like to paint these community broadband efforts as automatic boondoggles. In reality, they’re just like any business plan, with some good and some arguably awful. But lost in this claim is the fact that ISPs are bribing state legislatures to take local infrastructure decisions out of the hands of local voters — simply because they’re terrified of anything vaguely resembling competition. Also lost is the fact that these towns and cities wouldn’t be looking into these efforts if U.S. broadband wasn’t such an anti-competitive, uncompetitive shitshow.
But why should ISPs like Comcast compete when it’s much easier to buy awful state laws, then sue any community broadband efforts into oblivion (as Comcast attempted to do in Chattanooga)? The problem for incumbent ISPs is their ham-fisted efforts to obliterate things like net neutrality is only fueling anger in communities looking for any alternative to the dysfunctional status quo.
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