by Christopher Mitchell
Pop quiz: Should the state create or remove barriers to broadband investment in rural Virginia? Trick question. The answer depends very much on who you are – an incumbent telephone company or someone living every day with poor connectivity.
If you happen to be a big telephone company like CenturyLink or Frontier, you have already taken action. You wrote a bill to effectively prevent competition, laundered it through the state telephone lobbying trade organization, and had it sponsored by Del. Byron, R-Forest, in the General Assembly. That was after securing tens of millions of dollars from the federal government to offer an Internet service so slow it isn’t even considered broadband anymore. Government is working pretty well for you.
If you are a business or resident in the year 2017 without high quality Internet access, you should be banging someone’s door down – maybe an elected official, telephone/electric co-op, or your neighbor to organize a solution. You need more investment, not more barriers. Government isn’t working quite as well for you.
Rural Virginia is not alone. Small towns and farming communities across America are recognizing that they have to take action. The big cable and telephone companies are not going to build the networks rural America needs to retain and attract businesses. The federal government was essential in bringing electricity and basic phone service to everyone. But when it came to broadband, the big telephone companies had a plan to obstruct and prevent and plenty of influence in D.C.
When the Federal Communications Commission set up the Connect America Fund, they began giving billions of dollars to the big telephone companies in return for practically nothing. By 2020, these companies have to deliver a connection doesn’t even qualify as broadband. CenturyLink advertises 1000/1000 Mbps in many urban areas but gets big subsidies to deliver 10/1 Mbps in rural areas. Rural America has been sold out.
If you are a big cable or telephone company, you have a lot of influence in the federal and state capitals. But at the local level, your elected officials are more accountable to you because their decisions have a more immediate impact on their constituents’ lives.
Remember that as the General Assembly considers a bill from the telephone company lobbyists to limit your local governments from building networks. Places like Danville, Martinsville, and the Roanoke Valley have thoroughly upset the big cable and telephone companies by investing in new fiber-optic networks and opening them to any Internet Service Provider that wanted to compete for subscribers.
Danville and Martinsville have been doing this for years, with incredible results. The job gains are remarkable, particularly in areas hard hit by the decline of tobacco and manufacturing. Consider Danville, where the network was started with a loan from the electric utility. The network has made money every year for the community while also enriching the tax base. Existing businesses have become more competitive, new businesses came to town, and the community attracted more foreign direct investment.
They also created something else – a good example for communities that need better access. But the big monopolies are striking back using their strongest asset – lobbying. Virginia is already one of the 20 states that limit local authority to build networks. Now the state could make it even harder or impossible for communities to make these investments.
Consider the shareholders of CenturyLink and Frontier. They demand a good return on their investment. In return for some federal subsidies, they will invest the bare minimum in Virginia’s small towns. They count on the lack of choice in the market (i.e. monopoly power) to protect them from the frustration of local businesses and residents.
Local governments also have to listen to their shareholders – the businesses and residents that demand better Internet access to do business, get a quality education, and even enjoy modern entertainment. Local leaders actually live in these communities, unlike the executives or shareholders from the big companies.
If all of Virginia is to thrive, local governments must be free to invest in the modern infrastructure that their local businesses and residents need. Where existing providers meet that need, the local businesses and residents aren’t going to demand a municipal solution. But that decision should be made locally, not by powerful lobbyists swaying the legislature.
Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. He is on Twitter @communitynets.