from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

Fri, Aug 4th 2023 05:25am –

More than 600 communities across the U.S. have decided to build their own broadband networks after decades of predatory behavior, slow speeds, and high prices by regional telecom monopolies.

That includes the city of Bountiful, Utah, which earlier this year voted to build a $48 million fiber network to deliver affordable, gigabit broadband to every business and residence in the city. The network is to be open access, meaning that multiple competitors can come in and compete on shared central infrastructure, driving down prices for locals (see our recent Copia study on this concept).

As you might expect, regional telecom monopolies hate this sort of thing. But because these networks are so popular among consumers, they’re generally afraid to speak out against them directly. So they usually employ the help of dodgy proxy lobbying and policy middlemen, who’ll then set upon any town or city contemplating such a network using a bunch of scary, misleading rhetoric.

Like in Bountiful, where the “Utah Taxpayers Association” (which has direct financial and even obvious managerial tethers to regional telecom giants CenturyLink (now Lumen) and Comcast) launched a petition trying to force a public vote on the $48 million in revenue bonds authorized for the project under the pretense that such a project would be an unmitigated disaster for the town. (Their effort didn’t work).

Big ISPs like to pretend they’re suddenly concerned about taxpayers and force entirely new votes on these kinds of projects because they know that with unlimited marketing budgets, they can usually flood less well funded towns or cities with misleading PR to sour the public on the idea.

But after the experience most Americans had with their existing broadband options during the peak COVID home education boom, it’s been much harder for telecom giants to bullshit the public. And the stone cold fact remains: these locally owned networks that wouldn’t even be considered if locals were happy with existing options.

You’ll notice these “taxpayer groups” exploited by big ISPs never criticize the untold billions federal and local governments throw at giant telecom monopolies for half-completed networks. Or the routine taxpayer fraud companies like AT&T, Frontier, CenturyLink (now Lumen) and others routinely engage in.

And it’s because such taxpayer protection groups are effectively industry-funded performance art; perhaps well intentioned at one point, but routinely hijacked, paid, and used as a prop by telecom monopolies looking to protect market dominance.

Gigi Sohn (who you’ll recall just had her nomination to the FCC scuttled by a sleazy telecom monopoly smear campaign) has shifted her focus heavily toward advocating for locally-owned, creative alternatives to telecom monopoly power. And in an op-ed to local Utah residents in the Salt Lake Tribune, she notes how telecom giants want to have their cake and eat it too.

They don’t want to provide affordable, evenly available next-generation broadband. But they don’t want long-neglected locals to, either:

Two huge cable and broadband companies, Comcast and CenturyLink/Lumen, have been members of UTA and have sponsored the UTA annual conference. They have been vocally opposed to community-owned broadband for decades and are well-known for providing organizations like the UTA with significant financial support in exchange for pushing policies that help maintain their market dominance. Yet when given the opportunity in 2020, before anyone else, to provide Bountiful City with affordable and robust broadband, the companies balked. So the dominant cable companies not only don’t want to provide the service Bountiful City needs, they also want to block others from doing so.

Big telecom giants like AT&T and Comcast (and all the consultants, think tankers, and academics they hire to defend their monopoly power) love to claim that community owned broadband networks are some kind of inherent boondoggle. But they’re just another business plan, dependent on the quality of the proposal and the individuals involved.

Even then, data consistently shows that community-owned broadband networks (whether municipal, cooperative, or built on the back of the city-owned utility) provide better, faster, cheaper service than regional monopolies. Such networks routinely not only provide the fastest service in the country, they do so while being immensely popular among consumers. They’re locally-owned and staffed, so they’re more accountable to locals. And they’re just looking to break even, not make a killing.

If I was a lumbering, apathetic, telecom monopoly solely fixated on cutting corners and raising rates to please myopic Wall Street investors, I’d be worried too.

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Companies: centurylink, comcast, lumen

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