. . . from the build-it-and-they-will-come dept . . .
We’ve long mentioned how incumbent ISPs like AT&T and Comcast have spent millions of dollars quite literally buying horrible, protectionist laws in around twenty states that either ban or heavily hamstring towns and cities from building their own broadband networks. In some cases these laws ban municipalities 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 horrible 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. And that was before a pandemic highlighted the urgent importance of broadband for public safety.
The trend continued this month, when the [vast majority of Colorado voters (82%) voted to opt out of the state law restricting community broadband.
According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, several other communities voted along the same lines, and more than 140 Colorado communities have done the same in the fifteen years since the Colorado law was passed:
"Two other Colorado communities – Berthoud and Englewood – also voted in favor of similar ballot questions, asking voters if they want to opt out of SB 152. In Berthoud, 77.3% of voters cast ballots in support of the question. In Englewood, the opt-out question passed with 79.4% of voters in favor, which will allow the city to provide Wi-Fi service in city facilities.
In the 15 years since SB 152 was passed 140 Colorado communities have opted out with resultant networks like Longmont’s NextLight as an example of a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) success story."
While incumbent ISPs (and the regulators and lawmakers paid to love them) routinely claim community broadband is some kind of inevitable taxpayer boondoggle or nefarious affront to free speech, that’s simply never been true. Such efforts are an organic response to market failure and the lack of competition in countless markets across the United States. And data has repeatedly indicated that such projects tend to offer faster speeds and better customer service at lower, more transparent prices than incumbent cable and phone giants.
Such networks aren’t some kind of magic panacea, but they can often drive apathetic monopolies toward actually giving a damn, resulting in upgrades that wouldn’t materialize otherwise. And despite many nonsensical political narratives about community broadband being "socialism run amok," such networks have broad bipartisan public support, and are most frequently built in Conservative areas.
Despite a lot of whining among entrenched incumbents and their army of policy voices, there’s a pretty easy way to thwart such projects: start offering better, faster, cheaper broadband service.
But because that’s not profitable enough, quickly enough for Wall Street, the sector instead spends its time buying lawmakers and anti-competitive laws. In Colorado’s case, Centurylink and other backers of SB 152 likely rue the day they included an opt-out clause.