23 million Americans lack access to broadband internet from existing providers, usually in central areas of cities or distant rural areas. But cities’ ability to fill the gap with government-run internet networks is under attack.
A bill in Congress would preserve that option.
At least 21 states prohibit or significantly limit the ability of cities or municipalities to create their own broadband networks for their citizens.
Take Congress’s home city of Washington, D.C. A 1999 negotiation between the local government and Comcast saw Comcast threaten to cut off internet access for the entire city. Under pressure, the ultimate agreement the city government signed off on “required that the city not ‘engage in any activities or outcomes that would result in business competition between the District and Comcast or that may result in loss of business opportunity for Comcast,’” Harvard University researcher Susan Crawford wrote.
Under President Obama, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) attempted to block such state laws from going into effect, which would have allowed all municipalities free reign to create their own broadband. However, a unanimous three-judge panel decision overturned that ruling six months later, finding that the FCC had no legal power to preempt state laws.
Congress, however, does have that power.
What the bill does
The Community Broadband Act would prevent states or municipalities from creating laws to prevent their jurisdictions from creating their own broadband internet networks.
What supporters say
Supporters argue the legislation would allow all Americans to access the most important technology of our era in a less expensive and more competitive manner.
“Broadband Internet is the most vital tool of the 21st Century economy,” House lead sponsor Eshoo said in a press release. “Unfortunately, millions of Americans are still acutely impacted by a complete lack of or an inferior broadband connection. The Community Broadband Act is an important step in bridging the digital divide and will help local governments enable connectivity, increase economic growth and create jobs.”
“Internet access is an economic necessity in today’s economy, but too many communities lack reliable access,” Sen. Booker said in a separate press release. “I saw this problem first-hand as mayor of Newark. In places where reliable, high-speed internet access is lacking, some municipalities have bridged the gap by investing in and offering broadband internet to their residents. But barriers to municipal broadband networks remain. Our bill will help remove these barriers by giving cities the flexibility they need to meet the needs of their residents.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that internet access should be left in the hands of companies which already provide the service to millions, rather than local governments which would be starting from scratch and might be slower to act.
“The general rhetoric behind these laws, from the incumbents, is that cities are too incompetent to run their own networks, so it’s a risk to taxpayers,” broadband consultant Craig Settles explained to Vice.
However, state lawmakers who have introduced legislation preempting would-be local broadband networks have usually been heavily funded by the likes of entrenched interests including AT&T;, Century Link, Comcast, DirecTV, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, Time Warner, and Verizon — lending doubt to the politicians’ stated rationales.
Odds of passage
Versions were introduced in the previous Congress, attracting two Democratic cosponsors in the House and five Democratic or Democratic-affiliated cosponsors in the Senate, but never received a vote in committee.
This new House and Senate version have attracted six Democratic cosponsorsand five Democratic or Democratic-affiliate cosponsors, respectively.
The House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology is holding a hearing on this and several other broadband-related bills today, January 30 (you can watch live here). Only five of the 20 bills were introduced by Democrats, indicating that this one could potentially get some bipartisan traction on the Republican-controlled committee.