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Colo. Cities Vote to Override State Ban on Municipal Broadband

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on November 07, 2014 10:45 AM

Thanks to lobbying by totally disinterested third parties like Comcast and Verizon, 20 states have laws on the books prohibiting municipalities from creating municipal broadband or wireless Internet services ("Wi-Fi"). Effectively, under these laws, the cities themselves can't build Internet infrastructure; they have to obtain it through a private company.

But at least seven cities and counties in Colorado, reports Ars Technica, are defying state law and approving the installation of public broadband Internet and wireless.

Municipal Broadband Bad for ISPs, Say ISPs

It's hard to imagine why you wouldn't want municipal broadband, but Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and their lobby groups insist that public broadband and wireless networks are a waste of taxpayer money and are anti-competitive. That's according to a 2005 report from The New Millennium Research Council, a lobby group which was created by Issue Dynamics, a P.R. firm utilized by telephone and communications companies. The report actually did cite "the negative impact on broadband competition caused by municipal entry" as a reason not to build public broadband networks, but it failed to acknowledge that local utility regulations often mean that there's only one or two Internet service providers anyway.

Change the Rules!

At least some places don't buy this rationale and want to build those public networks. In last Tuesday's election, seven cities and counties in Colorado, including Boulder and the Denver suburb of Cherry Hills, passed local measures purporting to override the state law and create municipal broadband networks.

Sounds like mass civil disobedience, but this defiance might not be wholly unlawful. Ars says that the Colorado law has a loophole: Municipalities can offer public Internet service if private companies refuse to offer it.

If you think the state laws are themselves anticompetitive and limit citizens' options, then you're not alone: The FCC has been receiving petitions and complaints about the problem. It's not just citizen complaints, either: Cities in North Carolina and Tennessee asked the FCC to step in and invalidate the state laws restricting public broadband. Of course, companies like AT&T oppose the request, claiming such a policy would derail broadband deployment, and wouldn't it be much better to keep subsidizing private communication infrastructure with public money? Hmm? Hmm?

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler seems to err on the side of keeping broadband private. In a severely hedged letter he sent to Rep. Mike Doyle in August, he continued to come out on the side of "competition," using the word five times in a page-and-a-half letter.

We'll see what happens in Colorado and whether civil disobedience will go anywhere.

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