Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Congressional opposition to local internet choice is out of touch with their constituents

There are 20 states that have laws that are designed to prevent local communities from building municipal broadband networks. I live in one of them, Utah. Making the news on a regular basis are Tennessee and North Carolina for their electric utilities in Chattanooga and Wilson, respectively. Chattanooga has the EPB offering gigabit speeds to their customers. Wilson has Greenlight doing the same thing. Both services are wildly popular in their respective jurisdictions, and both are making plenty of money serving their customers. Both want to expand service to areas outside of their service area.

But the incumbent carriers have erected state laws as barriers to prevent that from happening. Incumbent carriers like Time-Warner, Comcast, ATT, and Verizon all pitched in to prevent municipal broadband from taking root, only to fail in the face of public support for an alternative.

Now comes the FCC with a new ruling to preempt the state laws that prevent communities from making their own choices about internet access. These cities built their own networks after pleading with the incumbent carriers to offer better, faster service, only to be denied by a bean counter in New York. This is what absentee ownership does to people. It insulates them from the people they serve.

Forces are gathering now to stop the FCC from executing on its order to preempt state laws that prevent communities from building their own networks when the incumbent carriers betray the public trust. Rep. Marsh Blackburn (R-TN) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) are working on bills in Congress aimed squarely at the goal of stopping the FCC. Oddly, there is no local support for their actions, but there is legal support gathering at the local level to defend the FCC.

Layfayette, LA City-Parish President Joey Durel wrote a supportive letter to Wilson's Mayor Bruce Rose. He offers this instructive passage:
"As in Wilson, the Lafayette community has been united in our support for high-capacity broadband connectivity to the Internet as an essential tool of economic development and as a means of securing our community's economic future. While some will use any means possible to distract you from achieving your goals for your community, our deeply conservative electorate has consistently supported our electric utility's great achievement in building a future-proof broadband Internet infrastructure, and this support has been consistently bi-partisan. My Democrat colleagues have joined me and my fellow Republicans in insisting that we in Lafayette should have the right to choose our broadband Internet future. We here in Lafayette will determine how our community engages this essential economic development tool, and we will not have our economic future dictated to us by others." (emphasis mine)
So, on the one hand, we have a pair of very conservative Republicans in Congress claiming that states rights should prevail on this issue. On the other, we have mayors proclaiming that cities should prevail on local choice for internet access. We also know that the majority of municipal networks have been built in conservative jurisdictions. Clearly more than a few members of Congress are out of touch on the issue, and perhaps, a bit hypocritical in a quiet nod to the monied interests.

Conservatives in Congress say that states rights should prevail against federal jurisdiction, but they omit the fact that state laws are preventing local jurisdictions from making their own choices about how to best provide internet access to their constituents. In other words, a top down approach is fine if the state government tells the cities what to do, but it is not OK if the federal government tells the states what to do. Yeah, no hypocrisy there.

If you want to go by delegation of power, then look at it this way:

Federal government

Who's on top? The People. Who's on the bottom? The Feds. So, in a way, Blackburn and Tillis may be right. But the model they seem to support looks something like this:

Federal government

Wait. Where are the people? Oh, that's right. Corporations are people. The laws that Tillis and Blackburn are promoting support the incumbents and they are using states' rights as cover for their actions. I know hard to believe. But when you look at the list of contributors to Blackburn's campaign funds, ATT, Comcast, Verizon and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association are in the top ten.  Tillis is no better with generous past support from the telecom industry.

If they want to stop the FCC, and their ideas have merit, they don't need that much money to support their cause. But given the local opposition to their statements and actions, it would seem that money is clouding their thinking.

The cities of Chattanooga and Wilson both have popular support for their broadband networks with neighboring cities looking with hope that they can do the same thing. Why not let them roll their own? Why can't every city roll their own network if they want to? If the incumbent carriers don't want to serve the people, then let the government do it. They might just do a better job at it.
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