If you thought the GOP couldn’t mess with our already broken internet infrastructure more than they already have, well, they’re just full of surprises. According to Ars Technica, House Republicans introduced a new bill on Tuesday that would ban municipal broadband networks nationwide. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Bob Latta (R-Ohio) included the proposal as part of their larger “Boosting Broadband Connectivity Agenda.”
The CONNECT Act, or “Communities Overregulating Networks Need Economic Competition” will supposedly not affect existing municipal broadband services, but is written to prevent cities and states from forming their own broadband networks unless “there is no more than one other commercial provider of broadband internet access that provides competition for that service in a particular area,” the bill states. Additionally, existing municipal broadband networks would be prohibited from expanding their network into new areas.
Essentially, if there’s a city that offers a choice between two major ISPs and a municipal broadband network, it’s likely the municipal network would need to close up shop. A local ISP like Vernon Light & Power that provides fiber to the city of Vernon, Calif., for example, could be forced to shut down since both AT&T and Spectrum also provide service in the same area. Community Network Services in Baconton, Ga., which provides cable broadband to a population of just over 1,000 residents, could also get the boot under this bill, since satellite internet providers HughesNet and Viasat already provide service to that area. These are just a few examples of local ISPs that could be affected by this bill should it ever go into affect.
According to the bill’s authors, the CONNECT Act “would promote competition by limiting government-run broadband networks throughout the country and encouraging private investment.” However, there are more than 900 communities that rely on electric co-op and other municipal broadband providers across the U.S. Stripping these communities of a broadband option not only does not create more competition, as the bill’s authors claim, but it could also widen the digital divide.
This bill also doesn’t take into account the electric co-op and municipal ISPs that were recently awarded millions of dollars from the FCC’s recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction. If local ISPs are barred from expanding in areas where they were awarded federal funds to help close the digital divide, what happens to the funds? Do they go to commercial ISPs instead? Some commercial ISPs, like CenturyLink and Frontier, have time and time again missed FCC-mandated deadlines to roll out broadband service in rural areas as part of their contractual agreement for receiving those funds.
“The CONNECT Act strikes me as a general mechanism for House Republicans to voice their disproval of municipal broadband conceptually. With so little specifics, and a near-zero chance of being passed, I don’t believe much thought has been put into how it would actually work,” BroadbandNow editor-in-chief Tyler Cooper told Gizmodo via email. “It would, in theory, affect electric co-ops and RDOF award winners, but both the Democrats and the Biden administration have signaled support for expanding municipal broadband, including potentially looking at a federal preemption on existing roadblocks and barriers.”
As of May 2020, there are 22 states with legislation designed to prevent municipal broadband networks from forming, according to a recent report from Broadband Now. Arkansas, California, and Connecticut are the most recent states to get rid of all arbitrary roadblocks and allow those networks to exist fully. As for the rest of the states, their legislation can impose anything from, but not limited to, vague legal requirements, tax burdens, or banning municipal broadband networks from using specific financing mechanisms to make it much harder for such networks to exist.
In turn, that makes it easier for major ISPs to retain a monopolistic hold over certain areas across those states and creates less incentive for them to compete for customers. According to the same BroadbandNow report, just 45% of the state populations who live under municipal broadband roadblocks had access to a $60 or less wired broadband plan, compared to 55% of state populations without roadblocks.
Ironically, Rep. Long’s state of Missouri is one of the states with the largest network of electric co-ops that provide wired broadband access despite the number of barriers in place to discourage it.