A new report has found that 26 states now either restrict or outright prohibit towns and cities from building their own broadband networks. Quite often the laws are directly written by the telecom sector, and in some instances ban towns and cities from building their own broadband networks—even if the local ISP refuses to provide service.
The full report by BroadbandNow, a consumer-focused company that tracks US broadband availability, indicates the total number of state restrictions on community broadband has jumped from 20 such restrictions since the group’s last report in 2018.
Frustrated by slow speeds, limited availability, high prices and terrible customer service, more than 750 communitiesacross the country have built their own broadband ISPs or cooperatives. Studies have shown these locally owned and operated networks tend to offer lower prices, faster speeds, and better customer service than their private-sector counterparts.
Instead of competing by offering better service—private sector telecom giants like Comcast and AT&T have routinely turned to a cheaper alternative: easily corrupted state lawmakers. In exchange for campaign contributions, lawmakers frequently and uncritically pass on model legislation written by industry and distributed by organizations like ALEC.
Often the restrictions are buried in other, unrelated legislation to try and avoid public scrutiny. For example in 2016, AT&T lobbyists attempted to include community broadband restrictions in a bill intended to address regional traffic issues.
BroadbandNow’s report looks at each state’s restrictions individually, and found that while some states simply banned community broadband outright (a notable assault on voters’ democratic rights), others impose clever but onerous restrictions on precisely how a local network can be funded, who they can partner with, or how quickly (and where) they’re allowed to grow.
In Tennessee, for example, state laws allow publicly-owned electric utilities to provide broadband, “but limits that service provision to within their electric service areas.” Such restrictions have made it hard for EPB—the highest rated ISP in America last year according to Consumer Reports—to expand service into new areas.
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