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The Fight Over Municipal Internet

“Cities want to invest in more competition,” says the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative. “But states, acting on behalf of cable and telephone companies, prevent that from happening.”

By Rick Paulas


Downtown Kansas City, which now has access to Google Fiber. (Photo: mobyrock/Flickr)

Think of the Internet not as a communication device, or an information portal, or a broadcast medium. It’s all those things, yes. But right now, think of it only as a business. And now, consider the primary drive of any business: to make as much money as possible.

The most tried and true method for making money is not necessarily providing value to customers, whether they are existing or potential. It is developing a service that people cannot live without, and then spending the rest of your time muscling competition out of the marketplace. And that is exactly what has been happening with the Internet over the past decade and change.

“Next year we’re worried we’ll see emboldened cable and telephone companies pushing to limit local authority.”

As the Internet has altered society to the point where it’s nearly impossible to get by without it on some level, those providing the service have remained the same. Mergers have somewhat muddled the names, but they’re all still there. AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, CenturyLink, Verizon, Frontier. To stay in power, they’ve fought against cities and municipalities in state legislatures across the country.

“It’s been kind of a war,” says Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative. “It’s rare for states to do much [Internet] building. Cities want to invest in more competition. But states, acting on behalf of cable and telephone companies, prevent that from happening.”

Many state lawmakers believe that developing Internet infrastructure is such a costly and risky enterprise that taxpayers are better off leaving the task to large companies with more entrenched resources. As Representative Marilyn Avila, a North Carolina Republican, put it in 2014 during a contentious fight over restrictions:

The issue with a city going out with fiberglass cable beyond city limits, it’s going to cost money and someone has to pay for it. Citizens of these cities should be extremely leery of entering into a competitive market where they don’t have anyone to step up and foot their bills.

In January of this year, Missouri introduced a bill that would restrict municipalities from building their own networks. In Kansas — a state that allows anyone to introduce a bill on the floor — lobbyists representing Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner Cable actually introduced a bill that would have prevented Google Fiber from expanding outside of Kansas City; the bill failed. In 2005, Colorado passed a bill restricting the actions of cities and communities when developing their own networks.

“What made 2005 a bold year for carriers was the sense that Republicans were taking greater power,” Mitchell says. “So, next year we’re worried we’ll see emboldened cable and telephone companies pushing to limit local authority.”

This isn’t a clear-cut partisan issue though. Rather, when one party claims all the power at once, telecom corporations have a more direct path to achieve their goals. “AT&T gives a lot of money to the party in power,” Mitchell says. “What’s challenging is there’s no one in any state that has resources to respond. People like me are few and far between.”

The consumer benefits of locally run Internet systems receive little attention in legislatures with no considerable opposition to corporate monopolies.

“People have a sense that cable TV sucks and will always suck, but I don’t think that has to be the case,” Mitchell says. “Most people are just used to their bill going up and not having any ability to do anything about it. And most people don’t think it’s a government issue.” Poor Internet service can lead to more than just laggy video streaming in residential neighborhoods. “You may not notice that small businesses, or even large businesses are leaving town,” he says.

Unfortunately, the federal government is not necessarily the place for assistance. Look no further than the ongoing failure of the Connect America Fund, the Federal Communications Commission’s program that’s built out rural sections of the country by pumping billions of dollars into pre-existing telecom providers like AT&T and CenturyLink. So far, much of that money has gone to upgrading existing DSL service, as opposed to creating new broadband infrastructure. By the time the project is done, it’ll likely be obsolete. (As far as what telecom will be like under a Trump administration, no one seems to know.)

Cities must take some initiative. It’s worked before, with Chattanooga somewhat famously figuring out how to implement its own gigabit Internet using taxpayer funds. But, every city is a different beast with various competing interests, topographies, and needs. “Some simply don’t want to go through what Chattanooga went through, or doubt their ability to do it like they did,” Mitchell says. But more than that, every city is beholden to the decisions of the state capital. And if state houses are only listening to what Big Telecom is telling them, they’re suffocating their cities in the process.

“Cities will need to develop some kind of a plan,” Mitchell says. “If they don’t, no one will.”