Telecom Lobbyists Crushed San Francisco’s Quest For Better Broadband

By Karl Bode Apr 4, 2019 | Original Techdirt article here.

While cities like Seattle and San Francisco are known as technology and innovation hubs, that hasn’t historically been reflected by the broadband markets in those cities. Like everywhere else, the two cities suffer from little real broadband competition, with incumbent monopolies like Comcast leaving consumers and businesses with a dearth of options for quality, lower cost broadband. And, like the rest of America, as companies like AT&T and Verizon shift their ambitions to online advertising, they’re refusing to upgrade aging DSL lines, leaving cable with an even more potent monopoly that 5G wireless isn’t likely to fix.

Faced with decades of sub-par service, "tech hubs" like Seattle and San Francisco have pondered building their own broadband networks. More than 750 towns and cities have pursued the option, which is why ISPs like AT&T and Comcast have lobbied for laws in nearly two-dozen states attempting to ban or hamstring such efforts. It’s not hard to see why. Chatanooga’s Publicly-owned ISP EPB was ranked last year as the best ISP in the nation, and Harvard studies have shown that such community networks tend to offer better service at lower and more transparent prices than their private-sector counterparts.

If any city should be able to pursue and fund a public open access fiber network, you’d think it would be tech-obsessed and hugely wealthy San Francisco. That was the thinking of Mark Farrell when he took his seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in 2010. He spent several years trying to convince his fellow city residents that an open-access, wholesale fiber network (where private ISPs come in and compete in layers on top) would improve life (and business) immeasurably in the city. But as with so many efforts, his plan ran face first into a buzzsaw of Telecom industry lobbying.

"In fact, angel investor Ron Conway, one of San Francisco techdom’s best-connected figures, contributed $15,000 to two supervisors who then argued against the proposal, according to reporting by 48 Hills and the San Francisco Chronicle., a tech-heavy industry group, that included Conway and two AT&T executives on its board, lobbied hard against Farrell. And Comcast lobbyist Scott Adams made 16 visits to City Hall between late 2014 and 2017 to discuss matters relating to broadband deployment, according to records at San Francisco’s Ethics Commission.

They came up with every excuse in the book; from large costs to the fact that their companies could provide that low-income access. If it had come to a vote we would have won.”

But it never did come to a vote, and once Farrell left office, the project was quietly shelved.

The high costs of such deployments often scare voters away, but San Francisco’s plan never even got that far. And while the high costs of such deployments are certainly something to consider, few realize that we’re already doling out billions to entrenched Telecom operators who do little to nothing of public benefit in the first place.

AT&T, for example, just received $20 billion (plus $3 billion annually in perpetuity) from the Trump tax cuts, and its response so far has been to fire employees. Taxpayers have thrown incalculable billions at these providers for decades in exchange for broadband networks only sparsely deployed.

In short the public is already paying an arm and a leg for broadband both in their monthly bills and in the tax breaks and subsidies thrown at giants like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T for doing little to nothing of substantive benefit.

If even half of those resources had gone to, say, lobbying reform or well-crafted community broadband efforts, data suggests these cities would already be reaping the benefits of better, cheaper, and faster broadband.