Last Minute Addition To Louisiana Bill Hamstrings Community Broadband

We've long noted that roughly twenty states have passed laws either outright banning community broadband, or tightly restricting such efforts. The vast majority of the time these bills are literally written by telecom lobbyists and lawyers for companies like AT&T and Comcast. While the bills are usually presented by lawmakers as an earnest concern about taxpayer boondoggles, the real motivation usually is the prevention of any disruption of their cozy geographical monopolies/duopolies.

In some states, community broadband is being offered via the local power utility. That's the case in Tennessee, where Chattanooga-based EPB has been prohibited from expanding despite the overall lack of competitive options in the state -- and despite EPB having been rated one of the best ISPs in America. When ISPs can't get straight out bans passed via state legislature, they'll usually trying to bury such restrictions in unrelated bills, such as when AT&T tried to include community broadband restrictions in an unrelated Missouri traffic ordinance.

Hugely frustrated by substandard service and a lack of broadband competition, more than 750 communities around the country have built some sort of community broadband network. But even when legislation intended to help them is proposed, it's an uphill battle to try and keep entrenched telecom lobbyists from making the bills worse. Case in point: Louisiana is considering Senate Bill 407, which would let utilities expand broadband to their rural customers. But provisions buried in the bill at the last second restrict utilities from offering broadband anywhere an incumbent already offers service:

"Jeff Arnold, who heads the Association of Louisiana Electric Cooperatives, said they supported the bill until wording was added that wouldn’t allow co-ops to sell broadband to their electricity customers who are mapped in areas as already served by broadband. “The language would restrict us from competing with others in the broadband market but would not stop them from cherry picking (customers) from cooperatives who choose to get in the broadband market,” said Arnold, who as legislator years ago chaired the Commerce committee."

The problem: less than 13% of Louisiana lacks any broadband access whatsoever. The other problem: the FCC's broadband mapping data has long been maligned as not accurate whatsoever, meaning these restrictions won't be based in, you know, factual reality. And one last problem: while many people can "access broadband," in reality this usually means just one telco (with un-upgraded DSL lines and sky high prices) or one local cable monopoly with sky high prices (usually Comcast or Spectrum). In short, the ban would effectively ban competition, something there's simply too little of.

And as the folks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) note, such restrictions also threaten the financial stability of such efforts, given it takes away more profitable customers in more populated areas:

"Not only will this prevent broadband competition in rural Louisiana, but it could also undercut the feasibility of rural electric co-op projects in unserved areas. To make broadband networks financially possible, co-ops often need to balance low density areas with more populated communities. Otherwise, cooperatives might not be able to connect the most rural and unserved parts of their service territory — especially since co-ops can’t (and don’t want to) subsidize broadband projects with funds from their electric operations. Furthermore, as Arnold pointed out, SB 406’s new provisions put electric cooperatives at the whim of broadband providers that might choose to expand in only the most profitable parts of the state, making the most difficult to connect communities even harder to serve."

Again, incumbent ISPs (and the lawmakers, consultants, and other experts paid to love them) have spent twenty years falsely claiming community broadband is an inevitable taxpayer boondoggle, despite that simply not being true (you'll almost never see these same folks complaining about the billions thrown at giants like AT&T in exchange for absolutely nothing). But as always, these towns and cities wouldn't be getting into the broadband business if locals were happy with what's on offer. And with 42 million Americans lacking any broadband at all, the country needs all the creative alternatives it can get.

 

With thanks to our Friends over at : Techdirt.

 

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