Mutant Broadband Bills Are Infecting Our Communities

Should communities have a right to decide how residents get online? It sounds like a simple question. It isn’t.  

The notion of self-determination is fundamental to our self-identify, our politics and the way we construct our communities. And while we all have different interpretations of what “the right to self-determination” means, most of us can agree that it’s a bad thing when governments try to take it away.

pev purdue

North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue gave away the right of North Carolina communities to create their own broadband networks.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happened in North Carolina and what could happen across the country.

Last year, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill, written by big telecom companies, that took away North Carolina communities’ right to create their own broadband networks (Gov. Bev Perdue refused to either sign or veto the bill, so it became law without her signature). Despite its name, the so-called “Level Playing Field/Local Government Competition Bill (H129)” was actually designed to create an unequal playing field by eliminating competition and restricting the cable market to existing private companies.

The bill’s passage means that municipalities in North Carolina can no longer choose to build their own broadband systems. Communities with poor broadband choices — where networks are too slow or don’t reach enough people or businesses — now have nowhere to turn, and must accept whatever substandard Internet service AT&T, CenturyLink and Time Warner Cable are willing to give them. When it comes to broadband in North Carolina, self-determination is a thing of the past.

The anti-competitive North Carolina bill — like some sort of mutant parasite infecting the country one state at a time — is part of a nationwide anti-local broadband trend. Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and possibly other states are all considering similar bills (the website Decide Locally is chronicling these and other pending bills).

The foundation for this movement is model legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded group that is behind hundreds of state-level, pro-corporate bills legislating everything from workers’ rights to health care to immigration.

As Georgia considers its version of this bill, it’s imperative that we recognize what’s going on here. Last week, Susan Crawford, the preeminent lawyer tackling the big tech policy issues of our time, wrote that while local broadband may be our only hope for globally competitive Internet access, it’s being threatened by big corporations using their sway to keep the status quo:

Right now, state legislatures — where the [telecom] incumbents wield great power — are keeping towns and cities in the U.S. from making their own choices about their communications networks. Meanwhile, municipalities, cooperatives and small independent companies are practically the only entities building globally competitive networks these days. Both AT&T and Verizon have ceased the expansion of next-generation fiber installations across the U.S., and the cable companies’ services greatly favor downloads over uploads.

What’s to be done? Grassroots groups, small business owners and individuals will unite to push back these bills in every state where they appear. But as Crawford suggests, Congress may need to intervene “by preempting state laws that erect barriers to the ability of local jurisdictions to provide communications services to their citizens.”

One thing is for sure: In the next weeks and months, we’ll once again be fighting to protect the rights of communities to determine how they’ll access information in the 21st century. North Carolina must serve as a warning sign: We can’t let corporations and their politician friends hijack our right to build better broadband.

If community access to quality broadband services matters to you, please consider a donation to the Free Press Action Fund. Thank you.

Illustration by Free Press. Original photo by Flickr user MonZTruX

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