Telecom Monopolies Are Once Again Funding Covert, Sleazy Local Attacks On Community Broadband Networks

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Telecom Monopolies Are Once Again Funding Covert, Sleazy Local Attacks On Community Broadband Networks​


Broadband

from the please-ignore-the-man-behind-the-curtain dept​

Thu, Jan 18th 2024 05:24am - Karl Bode

We’ve long established that U.S. broadband is expansive, patchy, and slow thanks to mindless consolidation, regulatory capture, regional monopolization, and limited competition. That’s resulted in a growing number of towns, cities, cooperatives, and city-owned utilities building their own, locally-owned and operated broadband networks in a bid for better, cheaper, faster broadband.

Regional giants like Comcast, Charter, or AT&T could have responded to this trend by offering better, cheaper, faster service. But ultimately they found it far cheaper to undermine these efforts via regulatory capture, congressional lobbying, lawsuits, and misleading disinformation.

During the pandemic, U.S. telecom giants had to slow their attacks a bit, given that the pandemic was painfully illustrating the immense benefit of affordable community-owned broadband networks, and attacking them — even via proxy orgs — didn’t make for great PR. But as our interest in caring about the ongoing pandemic has waned, regional telecom giants have returned to form.

Case in point: towns like Falmouth, Massachusetts have started building out faster, more affordable gigabit fiber access to locals after decades of market failure. In 2022, the town voted to establish a Municipal Light Plant (MLP), paving the way for Falmouth to create a municipal telecommunication utility, paving the way, in turn, toward cheap, ultra-fast fiber to locals.

City-owned utilities everywhere have been jumping into broadband, much in the way they did during the rural electrification efforts a century go, where the same story played out. Market failure, created by disinterested and apathetic regional monopolies, gets upended by organized locals.

Industry. of course, doesn’t much like that, so they’ve taken not to funding a shady non-profit dark money group that pretends to be a local, concerned “citizens group” dubbed “Mass Priorities.” According to the Institute For Local Self Reliance, the group’s entire function is to spread disinformation about the potential network in a bid to prevent its completion by undermining local support:


“In recent weeks, a non-profit “citizens group” that calls itself Mass Priorities has emerged out of the shadows to cast doubt on Falmouth’s municipal broadband proposal…“Mass Priorities has begun a series of advertisements that urge town governments on Cape Cod to invest in bridges and water utilities, and not government-owned networks. The launch is part of a $500,000 statewide media push over the next three months.”

“Mass Priorities,” is in turn funded by a lobbying and policy group called the Domestic Policy Caucus (DPC), which claims to support “transparent, public conversations on critical policy issues” and “educate voters on the issues that will have the greatest impact on their community.” That group is, in turn, covertly funded by regional telecom monopolies keen on undermining anything that would upset their regional monopoly power.

We’ve written about this kind of stuff before (see Charter creating an entirely fake consumer group in Maine to undermine community broadband efforts there). These pseudo-consumer groups almost always work to seed baseless worries about the idea that community-owned broadband networks are diabolical socialist boondoggles.

In this case, the group created a website called “ Stop government-backed broadband,” featuring all kinds of scary stories (and misleading financial data) about how community-owned broadband is always a bad idea. They’re not only attacking Falmouth’s plans, but Utah’s UTOPIA, one of the biggest, most popular, and most successful community broadband initiatives in the country.

Gigi Sohn (you know, the respected consumer advocate whose nomination to the FCC was scuttled by a homophobic telecom industry smear campaign) has a new (real) public advocacy group dubbed the American Association for Public Broadband, which sets the record straight:


“Here they go again. Using false and tired arguments, big cable is attacking three community broadband networks that residents and their elected officials chose to build and own. And like it did earlier this year in Bountiful City, Utah, it is hiding behind a surrogate that doesn’t reveal its financial supporters.”

There’s several layers of irony here. One, the companies behind these efforts (usually Comcast, AT&T, or Charter) are so widely despised by the American public they can’t participate in these conversations as themselves. They have to hide behind proxy groups pretending to be objective locals. And they think they’re being clever; even though locals have generally keyed into the ruse by now.

The other irony, as Sohn’s group notes, is these telecom giants have a long, long history of widespread taxpayer and subsidy fraud. They’ve blown through untold billions of dollars in regulatory favors, tax breaks, and subsidies for fiber networks they always somehow leave half completed, yet have the gall to create fake local groups pretending to care about fiscal responsibility:


“It is profoundly ironic that the country’s richest media companies are attacking “government-run” networks when they are at the same time bringing in billions of dollars of subsidies from the federal government and seeking billions more in grants from state governments. When your tax dollars are on the table, these “private” enterprises are more than happy to grab them with both hands.”

You can generally note who is operating in good faith in these conversations if they’re willing to acknowledge that regional monopolies have a long, documented history of taxpayer fraud. But these kinds of folks aren’t interested in having a “transparent” good faith policy conversation, they’re getting paid to seed bullshyt into the discourse on the behest of wildly unpopular corporations.

In Utopia’s case, they’re not even “government run.” They help local municipalities build voter-approved “open access” fiber networks that lower the cost of market entry letting ISPs big and small compete using the same centralized infrastructure. Big ISPs could easily join in the fun and participate, but companies like AT&T and Comcast have, as you may have noticed, a severe allergy to real price competition.

Community broadband networks aren’t some magic panacea. And if they’re not planned intelligently, they can, like any business proposition, go badly. But generally speaking, community broadband (whether via a municipality, a local cooperative, or a publicly-owned utility), have been a huge boon to broadband competition and shoring up access to long-under and un-served Americans.

But their existence threatens the cozy regional monopolies lumbering telecom giants have enjoyed for decades. Such companies could respond by offering better, cheaper service, but it’s much less expensive to try and undermine them via duct-taped together “astroturfing” campaigns.

Filed Under: american association for public broadband, community broadband, cooperatives, falmouth, Institute For Local Self Reliance, municipal broadband, utopia
 

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Another US state repeals law that protected ISPs from municipal competition​


With Minnesota repeal, number of states restricting public broadband falls to 16.​

JON BRODKIN - 5/24/2024, 2:25 PM

Illustration of network data represented by curving lines flowing on a dark background.

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Getty Images | Yuichiro Chino

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Minnesota this week eliminated two laws that made it harder for cities and towns to build their own broadband networks. The state-imposed restrictions were repealed in an omnibus commerce policy bill signed on Tuesday by Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat.

Minnesota was previously one of about 20 states that imposed significant restrictions on municipal broadband. The number can differ depending on who's counting because of disagreements over what counts as a significant restriction. But the list has gotten smaller in recent years because states including Arkansas, Colorado, and Washington repealed laws that hindered municipal broadband.

The Minnesota bill enacted this week struck down a requirement that municipal telecommunications networks be approved in an election with 65 percent of the vote. The law is over a century old, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative wrote yesterday.

"Though intended to regulate telephone service, the way the law had been interpreted after the invention of the Internet was to lump broadband in with telephone service thereby imposing that super-majority threshold to the building of broadband networks," the broadband advocacy group said.

The Minnesota omnibus bill also changed a law that let municipalities build broadband networks, but only if no private providers offer service or will offer service "in the reasonably foreseeable future." That restriction had been in effect since at least the year 2000.

The caveat that prevented municipalities from competing against private providers was eliminated from the law when this week's omnibus bill was passed. As a result, the law now lets cities and towns "improve, construct, extend, and maintain facilities for Internet access and other communications purposes" even if private ISPs already offer service.

“States are dropping misguided barriers”​

The omnibus bill also added language intended to keep government-operated and private networks on a level playing field. The new language says cities and towns may "not discriminate in favor of the municipality's own communications facilities by granting the municipality more favorable or less burdensome terms and conditions than a nonmunicipal service provider" with respect to the use of public rights-of-way, publicly owned equipment, and permitting fees.

Additional new language requires "separation between the municipality's role as a regulator... and the municipality's role as a competitive provider of services," and forbids the sharing of "inside information" between the local government's regulatory and service-provider divisions.

With Minnesota having repealed its anti-municipal broadband laws, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance says that 16 states still restrict the building of municipal networks.

The Minnesota change "is a significant win for the people of Minnesota and highlights a positive trend—states are dropping misguided barriers to deploying public broadband as examples of successful community-owned networks proliferate across the country," said Gigi Sohn, executive director of the American Association for Public Broadband (AAPB), which represents community-owned broadband networks and co-ops.

There are about 650 public broadband networks in the US, Sohn said. "While 16 states still restrict these networks in various ways, we're confident this number will continue to decrease as more communities demand the freedom to choose the network that best serves their residents," she said.

State laws restricting municipal broadband have been passed for the benefit of private ISPs. Although cities and towns generally only build networks when private ISPs haven't fully met their communities' needs, those attempts to build municipal networks often face opposition from private ISPs and "dark money" groups that don't reveal their donors.
 
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