Politics and Municipal Competition

Capitol_domeNot long ago I had a blog that looked in amazement at how political the issue of net neutrality had become, and how it was being debated more along partisan lines than on the merits of the issue. And I noted that this was the biggest political issue I had remembered during my career in the industry that had started back in the 70’s.

And now, in a very short period of time national politics has entered our industry again on the issue of allowing municipal competition in broadband. I find this issue interesting because it looks at state barriers to competition, and states vary widely on how they handle the issue today. The press reports that there are 20 states that have a ban on municipal competition, or else rules that are draconian enough to effectively stop it.

This issue has been political for years at the state level. There is a group, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that writes and promotes various laws that support conservative policies. These laws are then introduced into state legislatures whenever the environment seems ripe. ALEC has been pushing anti-municipal broadband legislation for several decades. In recent years we’ve seen bans enacted against municipal broadband in North Carolina in 2011 and South Carolina in 2012. Just this year an ALEC bill was introduced in Kansas.

But the fight has now moved from the state legislatures to the FCC. In the last week there were two petitions filed at the FCC by existing municipal fiber systems in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina. These petitions ask the FCC to remove barriers in those states that prohibit those municipal fiber businesses from expanding outward to serve other communities. The FCC accepted these petitions and has asked for comments by August 29th. This probably means that the FCC will consider granting the petitions, which is in line with statements made all year by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler who says that there should be no restrictions on municipalities from building fiber networks.

The FCC granted the hearing of these petitions in the face of open political opposition. On July 16 the House of Representatives voted to strip the FCC of any authority to allow communities to pursue broadband businesses. The bill passed 223 – 200 with Republicans voting 221 – 4 in favor of the bill. Just like with net neutrality, this issue is heavily partisan with Republicans staunchly against municipal competition while democrats, while not so staunch, seem these days to be for whatever the republicans are against.

And so, just like net neutrality, this debate has left the arena of public discourse and now is highly partisan. This seems odd to me since there is already a lot of municipal competition in the states that allow it. It’s been reported that there are over 150 communities that have built and are operating fiber networks to customers. And there are hundreds more that have built fiber networks to serve their own government, schools and even sometimes large businesses. And so we have many examples of how municipal competition works and what it means to a community. This is not a national fight on whether cities can get into the fiber business, but rather we are debating whether states can prohibit it.

It’s interesting because the Chattanooga petition to the FCC quotes republican Trent Lott, the Speaker of the House at the time of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, as saying how that Act would help communities to compete in the telecom space. So this hasn’t always been so clearly partisan, but like many issues it is now clearly divided along party lines.

I don’t like this political fight any more than I like the one on net neutrality. Call me old fashioned, but I would rather see topics in our industry decided on their merits rather than being divided straight along party lines. There certainly are arguments to be made on both sides. But to me, the argument that trumps them all is that there are tens of thousands of small rural communities that don’t have sufficient broadband. And in most cases there is nobody lining up to build broadband network in these places.

I say that we should let localities decide on their own what is in their best interest. Fiber networks and Internet access are growing to become a natural utility like water lines and electric lines. Communities without broadband are going to be at risk of withering away and becoming irrelevant. I look at this issue in the context of what happened with electricity a hundred years ago. At that time big companies scrambled to build electric networks in all of the major cities. But rural America was left behind and many small towns decided then to electrify their towns in order to be relevant and to be a place that people want to live. Broadband is this century’s electricity. In those places where no incumbent steps up to bring broadband the local community needs to have the right to do it on their own.

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