Following a playbook that first succeeded in neighboring North Carolina, telecom lobbyists led by AT&T have been successful in passing a bill in the South Carolina legislature that makes it nearly impossible for cities to build their own broadband networks. The bill passed on Wednesday and is expected to be signed by the Governor.
As CivSource has reported, municipal broadband networks across the nation have been under attack by private broadband and telecommunications services providers who say that municipally backed networks are unfair competition. Existing municipal networks in states like Minnesota are typically created through a local public bond issue and provide affordable broadband access to local residents. These networks are especially important in lower population areas, where private providers have explicitly said that there is no business case to build there.
Despite having no intention to build, these private companies want to make sure no one else does either, effectively cutting off much of rural America from broadband and capping the economic development potential of many areas of the country. “We’ve all been trying to find a broadband solution that was economically viable to get out to rural America, and we’re not finding one to be quite candid. The best opportunity we have is LTE,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, said on an earnings conference call where he discussed the company’s view of expansion.
In South Carolina, AT&T, the state’s largest telco led the charge against municipal networks. According to a report in Ars Technica, AT&T, contributed $1,000 to the coffers of Michael Gambrell, South Carolina assembly member and lead author on the bill. According to national broadband data, South Carolina ranks near the bottom of other states for broadband adoption owing in part to a lack of availability. The Ars Technica report indicates that the company likely also had support from conservative legislative action committee, ALEC, in lobbying for the bill. The organization takes a firm stance against municipal broadband networks on its website.
AT&T has made some investments in the state, however, the company has been open about its inability to make rural broadband profitable which will thus continue to limit its deployment in those areas. The South Carolina bill also goes a step further than similar legislation in that it lacks a provision to grandfather in existing municipal networks, thus threatening their longterm viability.
The US lags many other developed countries when it comes to the modernization and widespread accessibility of broadband. Several of these countries have recognized broadband access as a basic human right and provide it to their citizenry as a public utility. A few, forward thinking Governors and Mayors have come to realize the economic necessity of such access, but pockets of access only encourage broader urban planning problems like leapfrog development.
As noted by DSLReports, even in areas where access exists both AT&T and Verizon have frozen deployments of their U-Verse and FiOS networks. AT&T has said that upgrades from DSL are too costly and are even considering selling off these markets, moves which may effectively roll back access in more parts of the US.