Recently, the Federal Communications Commission announced its intention to add broadband Internet service to what it considered the "lifeline" telephone service. But while many municipalities -- particularly in rural areas -- still lack Internet from a major provider, some of those providers are bankrolling efforts in a number of states to restrict municipalities from setting up their own Internet services -- essentially leaving those communities cut off from the Internet altogether for the forseeable future.
This sort of effort isn't new; at the behest of the telecommunications industry, states have been bringing forth bills limiting municipalities' attempts to provide wifi to their citizens for a decade. But this is different in two ways. First, these attempts are limiting any sort of broadband Internet development; second, the effort is much more systematic and is reportedly being brought forth by a conservative think tank that is providing state legislatures with the actual legislation.
Understand -- the big telecommunications companies themselves aren't providing or even intending to provide the broadband Internet themselves. They just want to make sure nobody else does it.
"The Georgia legislature is currently considering a bill that would effectively make it impossible for any city in the state to provide for high-speed Internet access networks -- even in areas in which the private sector cannot or will not," writes Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School and a former special assistant to President Barack Obama for science, technology and innovation policy. "Nebraska, North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee already have similar laws in place. South Carolina is considering one, as is Florida." Meanwhile, she notes, municipalities, cooperatives and small independent companies are practically the only entities building globally competitive networks these days, as both AT&T and Verizon have ceased the expansion of next-generation fiber installations across the U.S., and the cable companies’ services greatly favor downloads over uploads.
Ironically, such bills are often couched in terms that make it sound like they're attempting to protect consumers. "The role of governments should be to make certain that Internet services are available to every American – not to compete head-to-head against the private sector that is already offering such services," notes the Florida Coalition for the New Economy, a coalition of corporations and conservative organizations such as the Heartland Institute that is putting forth the Florida legislation.
Previously, efforts to stop municipal networks have often worked on the local level. In Longmont, Colo., for example, lobbyists reportedly spent $300,000 attempting to defeat a local broadband initiative.
But now, corporations are working on the state level -- where some legislators typically agree with Dillon's Rule and think of local government as "creatures of the state" and look suspiciously on giving them any power at all.
And some of these efforts are being bankrolled by an organization known as ALEC that is receiving widespread criticism for its hand in state governments, writes Craig Settles of Gigabit Nation. "This push is brought to you by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of corporate lobbyists who ghostwrite state bills behind closed doors that their pocket legislators then push on the floor," he writes. "This “model” of anti-muni broadband legislation contains wording that is replicated in these latest bills and newspaper op-eds that attack community broadband."
Several sites are tracking the efforts to provide community broadband -- as well as the efforts to stop it. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance offers a map of community broadband efforts, while the Baller Herbst Law Group focuses on articles and tracking legislation.
Crawford is calling on Congress to pass laws to keep states from passing such laws, while Settles is urging residents and Internet users to fight such laws using the same tactics and fervor that they did to fight industry-friendly legislation such as SOPA.