Ohio state lawmakers are attempting to ban community broadband at the demand of telecom giants. If approved, the effort would severely harm the ability of local communities to build and expand better, faster, and cheaper broadband.
On June 9, the Ohio Senate approved a new budget bill. But a last-minute amendment shoveled into the bill is angering state residents and locally-owned ISPs, who say it’s an underhanded effort by AT&T and Charter to protect their regional broadband monopolies.
The amendment would ban the building of community run broadband networks in any areas where consumers already have access to broadband speeds of 10 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up. Such a standard doesn’t even meet the FCC’s definition of broadband (25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up), and community ISPs routinely deliver far faster options.
Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, built a fiber broadband network on the back of its local energy utility providing fiber broadband as fast as 10 Gbps. Studies have repeatedly shown community networks better, faster, and cheaper options, forcing regional monopolies to not only compete on price, but improve their own local offerings.
The Ohio proposal also bans municipalities from offering broadband service outside of established municipal boundaries, and prohibits community broadband networks in the state from using local tax dollars or federal subsidies and grants to fund network build outs.
Ohio’s restrictions were implemented without any public notice or input. One local Cleveland outlet noted that the effort is so unpopular, Ohio Republicans sponsoring the amendment are refusing to even officially acknowledge their support.
Twenty-five Republican State Senators voted in favor of the Senate budget bill as it currently exists, while eight Democrats voted against it. The Ohio State Senate and House now have until June 30 to reconcile bill differences and eliminate or approve the amendment’s restrictive language.
“We were somewhat surprised by this effort to kill community networks because it is so late in the session,” Christopher Mitchell, a community broadband expert at the Institute For Local Self Reliance told Motherboard. “However, it is clear that whoever inserted the language—we assume at the behest of the cable monopoly Charter Spectrum—understood how unpopular it would be and wanted to avoid any public hearings or opportunities for Ohio businesses and residents to speak out in favor of local Internet choice.”
More than 750 U.S. towns and cities have built some type of community broadband network. Such home-grown options are usually a direct response to a lack of competition among entrenched broadband providers, which in countless US markets results in high prices, spotty coverage, slow speed, and historically terrible customer service.
Yet instead of competing with these local networks through price cuts or upgrades, telecom giants have lobbied for state laws designed to eliminate them. Seventeen states currently have laws restricting or banning community broadband, most of them ghost written by incumbent ISP lawyers, then shoveled through state legislatures with the help of organizations like ALEC.
With pandemic lockdowns highlighting the essential nature of broadband, the trend appeared to have been reversing itself. Washington and Arkansas eliminated their restrictions this year.
The restrictions are so unpopular among consumers, large ISPs often try to sneak them through state legislatures covertly, like in 2016 when AT&T attempted to bury community broadband restrictions in an unrelated Missouri traffic ordinance.
Telecom giants also utilize an army of consultants, think tanks, and outside policy groups to portray community broadband as an inevitable disaster and waste of taxpayer resources, while downplaying the billions in state and federal taxpayer dollars funneled annually toward the nation’s biggest ISPs for fiber networks that routinely fail to fully materialize.
Big telecom also enjoys framing community broadband as a partisan issue to sow public dissent and stall reform. But Mitchell’s group notes that most community-owned broadband networks are built in Conservative cities, often with bipartisan voter support. Few voters think a giant ISP like Comcast should be covertly dictating what a town or city does with its own resources.
More than 1 million Ohio residents currently lack access to broadband. Only 47 percent of Ohio residents have access to broadband for less than $60 per month. 83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly, and millions more are stuck under a duopoly usually consisting of a cable giant—usually Comcast or Charter—and a local telco offering sluggish DSL.
Ohio’s restrictions would not only prohibit the construction of new municipal broadband networks, they would prevent the state’s 30 existing community broadband networks from expanding. That includes FairlawnGig, which provides Ohio locals with broadband tiers starting at 300 Mbps for $55 a month, a dramatically cheaper option than most national ISPs.
“We’re asking our residents, and residents across the State to get in touch with their State Senators and House Representatives to tell them to strip out the language banning municipal broadband service as well as directing Federal Rescue Act funding to broadband initiatives,” the ISP said.