The past week has been full of setbacks for those striving to boost competition among broadband suppliers and provide consumers with more choice.
From Tennessee to San Francisco, these efforts are being thwarted by major Internet Service providers. On Tuesday, a bill that would have allowed publicly owned electric companies in Tennessee to expand their high-speed internet offerings beyond their immediate service areas was voted down by lawmakers, The Knoxville News Sentinel reported. The effort to pass a bill like this, which sought to provide residents in rural and suburban areas with a larger selection of high-speed internet providers, is seven-years old.
Local news media had reported that the big ISPs had undertaken a massive lobbying effort against the bill. The Sun Sentinel wrote that Rep. Kevin Brooks (R-Cleveland), one of the bill’s backers, explained the bill’s defeat this way: “It’s a testament to the power of lobbying against this bill and not listening to our electorate. We have thousands of petitions signed (in support of the bill) and the voice of the people was not heard.”
Brooks didn’t name any specific company but Sen. Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga) didn’t hesitate to point a finger at those he said were lobbying against the bill in an interview last month with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “We’re talking about AT&T,” Gardenhire said. “They’re the most powerful lobbying organization in this state by far…Don’t fall for the argument that this is a free market versus government battle. It is not. AT&T is the villain here.”
AT&T executives said that “taxpayer money should not be used to over-build or compete with the private sector,” Ars Technica reported.
Supporters say they’ll try again next year.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Google wants to bring ultrahigh-speed Internet service to the region but is being blocked largely because of a group calling itself The Northern California Joint Pole Association. Members of this group, including AT&T, won’t let Google use their utility poles.
Google is arguing for access before regulators. The company needs pole access because burying fiber cables is expensive and impossible in some areas, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Google is fighting some of the big ISPs for pole access in other areas of the country as well.
[Update, March 23: Comcast says it does not own any joint-use poles in California and “has no ability to grant or deny pole access.”]
What does all this mean? For starters, it shows the lengths to which incumbents will go to bar the door against competition and keep customers locked in. The Federal Communications Commission says 51 percent of Americans have only one choice of broadband providers.
The unfolding events also means there is little consumers can do about it. We’re outspent. Out lobbied. Meanwhile, Comcast is hitting customers in different areas around the country with metered pricing, which will certainly jack up the rates of heavier users.
In an interview with Ars Technica, Tom Wheeler, FCC chairman said sure, it’s possible that the agency could force big ISPs to enable would-be competitors to piggyback on their “last-mile” infrastructure to resell internet service. But Wheeler doesn’t think this is fair.
Wheeler told Ars that that competition should be fostered by companies that build their own infrastructure.
“I have a facilities-based proclivity,” Wheeler said. “I think if you’re going to get competition, competition is a facilities-based issue. It is not an ersatz unbundling issue.”
But what about fairness for consumers? Well, that’ll have to wait. Don’t look for Wheeler or our government representatives to save the day anytime soon.