Incumbents Fight Broadband Improvement

There was a recent article in the Bangor Daily News about Charter fighting a move by small towns in Maine to bring fiber broadband. To anybody who has been in the business for a while, this is nothing new. The big cable companies and telcos have fought municipal broadband for decades.

The article highlights a recent public meeting in the small town of Leeds, a town of under 2,300. The town was hoping to partner with Axiom Technologies, a nearby ISP, to provide fiber broadband. This would be financed with a $2.2 million bond, which Axiom would repay.

Charter used a tactic that has been seen in many places over the years – prior to the public meeting on the issue, an organization called Maine Civic Action hand-delivered slick double-sided colored pamphlets to everybody in the town. The pamphlet described the attempt to build better broadband as a boondoggle that would lead to higher taxes and questionable service. An investigation showed that Maine Civic Action was created by funding from Charter given to the Maine Policy Institute, a conservative advocacy group from Portland, Maine. Charter was quoted as saying that the donation to the Maine Policy Institute was nothing more than charity, akin to a donation made to Girl’s Day at the state capital. Maine Policy Institute admitted that the Maine Civic Action organization was created strictly to fight municipal broadband.

The incumbents undertake this kind of behind-the-scenes lobbying because they know it works. Charter wouldn’t get the same reaction if it directly lobbied the public under its own name. Similar efforts were taken to defeat recent fiber initiatives in the nearby towns of Hampden and China. The lobbying effort didn’t work in this case, and the bond issue in Leeds was approved.

Small towns and cities often feel like captives of the big ISPs. The telcos stopped supporting DSL in town a decade or more ago. Cable networks in smaller towns are often of far lesser quality than what is provided in larger cities. The ISPs closed local and regional business offices years ago and over time have reduced the number of technicians working in smaller markets. Outages often last for a day in smaller markets. Small town residents can see that service is bad and getting worse.

Small towns also look around and see that rural locations around them are getting in line to get fiber broadband through grants – and the towns feel left behind. The incumbents have been successful in keeping federal grant money away from towns like Leeds. However, Congress gave communities a one-time shot in the arm to consider better broadband with the local grants awarded in the American Recovery Plan Act. This is local money that cities, towns, and counties can use as they see fit, as long as towns can justify the expenditures to fix some problem that was apparent during the pandemic.

Almost every community I’ve talked to feels that broadband was unsatisfactory during the pandemic. Students struggled tackling school from home, and employees struggled with connecting to the office from home. The hardest hit were homes that had multiple family members trying to use broadband at the same time. The pandemic uncovered the weaknesses in the cable company networks, while towns also discovered that some neighborhoods have worse broadband than others. People everywhere learned about the importance of good upload broadband.

The actions of Charter are intended to warn other small towns not to mess with the huge monopoly. I would guess there are more than one hundred towns around the country having the same conversation about broadband as Leeds. Charter and other big ISPs don’t want local governments to even think about improving broadband. Whenever there is a public outcry, ISPs like Charter always promise communities they’ll do better, but nothing ever changes once the risk of a vote is over. It’s intimidating for a small town like Leeds to experience a confrontation from a giant cable company that will be making billions in profits this year. It’s not hard for Charter to divert a little bit of that profit to fight off competition. It’s a shame they don’t instead take some of that money to make the broadband better in Leeds so that the folks there don’t have to look for an alternative.

Note: I was contacted by Jacob Posik of the Maine Policy Institute who says that Maine Public and the Bangor Daily News have issued a correction to say that Maine Civic Action was created in 2018 and was not specifically created to fight municipal broadband. 

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