Government for the people, by the people—except when telecom money says otherwise.
Chattanooga has become a battleground for big government vs small interests. Image: Flickr/Bryce Edwards
The conservative small government movement has gained momentum based on the principle that decisions are best made at a local level, because people know what they want better than the federal government does. So why is a contingent of small government-minded congressional representatives trying to dick over local governments when it comes to high-speed internet access?
I'm talking about the Republican-backed amendment that would make it illegal for local governments to ask the Federal Communications Commission for permission to build their own ultra high-speed, cheap, net neutrality-preserving community broadband networks.
More than 20 states have laws on the books preventing local communities from building municipal fiber networks—the FCC recently said it would help local communities preempt those laws, giving power back to small towns who know what they want better than anyone in the statehouse.
But the Rep. Marsha Blackburn's amendment, which nearly all House Republicans voted in favor of, would make the FCC's move illegal.
The real reason for the seemingly hypocritical opposition to the FCC's decision is that (as you might guess) the politicians backing the legislation are in the pocket of big telecom, and those deep-pocketed companies don't want to have to compete with anyone.
Instead, it's being framed as a states' rights issue, even though those states' laws are the epitome of the kind of big government regulation that conservatives rail against.
But let's pretend, for a minute, that Blackburn's amendment wasn't written by a telecom flack looking to protect big business interests and instead take a look at what community networks actually are, and take a look at why a small town would want to build their own network.
The city at the heart of this battle, right now, is Chattanooga, Tennessee, which has had gigabit internet since last year (and has had 100 mb/s internet since 2010). But a law in Tennessee doesn't allow the city's electrical company, EPB, from expanding the insanely popular service to the surrounding areas. Here's what those surrounding areas look like, by the way:
The black areas have gigabit fiber. Yellow and orange are underserved or unserved by high-speed internet. Image: EPB
All of that orange and yellow are places where AT&T, Comcast, and other big telecom companies won't touch (or will only service with outdated DSL technology). They're areas that are too rural for it to make economic sense for a major telecom to lay with fiber, and they're areas that are, right now, poking along with internet speeds of less than 3 mb/s. In other words, a couple miles away in Chattanooga, you can get internet speeds that are more than 300 times faster than what you can buy from any major telecom company, for cheaper than you'll pay for AT&T U Verse DSL.
EPB wants to expand to those areas; AT&T and other big telecom companies have no interest in doing it.
"For several years EPB has received regular requests to help some of these communities obtain critical broadband internet infrastructure," the utility wrote in a press release earlier this month. "However, since 1999, while state law has allowed EPB to provide phone services outside its electric service territory, it has prohibited EPB from offering internet and video services to any areas outside its electric service area."
So, here you have local communities wanting what's best for their communities but getting stiffed by (big telecom-backed) state laws that prevent them from doing it and are being stiffed by Washington, DC lawmakers who care more about "states' rights" (which are actually telecom-rights) than they care about local rights.
The argument that comes from Blackburn and other politicians who oppose this law is that government should not compete with industry. But that's not even what's happening here. The vast majority of community networks exist in places where there are literally no high-speed internet options at all or in places where only one company operates.
These are the states with laws against expanding or forming new municipal internet networks. Image: MuniNetworks
"This comes down to the issue of local choice. It's a matter of whether broadband services in an area meet the needs of the community," Patrick Lucey, a researcher who studies municipal broadband for the New America Foundation, told me. "Over the next year or two, more and more cities are going to be discussing this issue for themselves, and what's happening [in Congress] is harmful to that debate."
Blackburn's main argument against municipal networks is that they would be built with taxpayer money and would be taxpayer owned. In theory, municipal networks would require local communities to raise taxes to actually build the thing. The thing is, time and time again, people have willingly voted to raise their own taxes in exchange for better broadband access.
These votes are happening in small, rural towns across America. It's happened in Holly Springs, North Carolina and in Leverett, Massachusetts, where residents decided at a town hall meeting that this is something worth investing in. In that town of 2,000 people, residents voted to pay an extra $25 in taxes a month instead of continuing to languish without high-speed internet.
"Passing the item [in Leverett] required raising local property taxes, and they voted to do it—that's how vital it is to have broadband internet," Lucey said.
The National League of Cities and the Coalition for Local Internet Choice have made similar arguments to Congress. Both point out that these networks are getting built in places big telecom won't touch. Now, Washington is interfering. And Washington, in this case, very clearly means means Blackburn and small-government Republicans, not the FCC. Blackburn continually argued that Americans don't want "top-down" decisionmaking, and that the FCC would somehow "force" municipal broadband on places that don't want it. The FCC's move, of course, is the exact opposite.
"Preemption will not force anyone to do anything that the municipalities alone don't want to do. This is not about forcing states to do anything, but instead stopping states from choking grassroots competition and stopping states from blocking faster networks or new networks where none exist," Rep. Jose Serrano said in opposition to Blackburn's amendement. "Whatever happened to localism or local control? This amendment means the federal government will tell every local citizen, mayor, and county council member that they may not act in their own best interests."
The only one forcing anything on anyone here—the only one "violating sovereignty"—is Blackburn and her fellow Republicans. Forget local choice, I guess, as long as the political contributions from big telecom keep rolling into Congressional and statehouse coffers.