Last year, Republicans in the state legislature put forward a bill that would have effectively curbed the ability of municipal officials to build broadband networks in their municipalities even when private sector broadband providers said flat out they had no plans to build there. CivSource reported on the bill, and protests against it which included big names like Google. Now the bill is back again, prompting the Georgia Municipal Association to call for renewed protests.
Municipal broadband has been under steady attack nationwide by incumbent broadband providers like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon. They contend that networks built by cities and counties that also offer subscription options for residents amount to unfair competition. They won this fight in North and South Carolina, but, following more coverage of the issue, fights in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Georgia have been harder to win.
As reporting on this site and others have shown, states with rural populations remain severely underserved by broadband networks and some providers like Hughes and Frontier Communications have entered the space. However, the biggest providers have stated plainly that they see no profits in rural communities, and prefer instead to create artificial scarcity to drive profits and shareholder value.
The current bill being pushed in the Georgia legislature has some tweaks from last year’s version. However, the title – HB 282, Municipal Preemption on Broadband Deployment makes it clear what lawmakers are after. Under the new bill, existing municipal networks may continue to serve their current customer base only, and may not expand unless no other broadband option is available. In addition, if a municipality wants to build a new network they must first get permission from the Public Service Commission (PSC) to provide broadband services and only in areas the PSC agrees that access is lacking. The definition for an unserved area only includes places that according to census block data, no broadband service is currently available.
This means that for communities in Georgia, local officials have to determine that no private sector provider is in, or will be in your area before they’re allowed to offer you access. Now, what if there is private sector access that amounts to aging dial-up, or DSL? Tough luck. The city is then barred from making improvements on its own. Residents will have to try to convince private sector providers that gaining their subscription to pricier, faster broadband service is important. This also holds for business districts in small towns, which if the bill passes, may find themselves without any real ability to attract modern industries that depend on high speed data.
As we noted in our previous reporting on the bills in Georgia, state reports have shown that private sector providers told state officials they have no intention to build. Governor Deal also recently published a state competitiveness report which underscores the competitive disadvantage faced by these communities and the state, when it comes to attracting economic development and jobs.
Bills like this approach municipal networks as though they are networks by fiat. In reality, more often than not these networks are created through bond issues voted on by taxpayers. If the issue is offered as a straight up or down vote, and providers themselves have no plans to build, we are left to question how these networks amount to unfair competition. Bills like this on the other hand, effectively limit the power of communities to govern themselves or provide basic infrastructure.