Elizabeth Warren Promises to Kill State Laws That Ban Locally-Owned ISPs

26 states have passed protectionist laws preventing your town or city from building its own broadband network.
Image: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has unveiled a plan she says will not only improve broadband access in America, but kill state laws specifically designed by the telecom industry to hamstring broadband competition.

Warren’s proposal, outlined in a Medium post as part of a broader plan for rural America, includes doling out $85 billion to help fund broadband deployment to underserved areas. FCC data suggests that 39 percent of rural Americans still lack access to broadband. But the plan also does something notable: it takes aim at the growing roster of protectionist state laws telecom lobbyists have used to crush competition across the country. “Many small towns and rural areas have turned to municipal networks to provide broadband access in places that the private market has failed to serve—but today, as many as 26 states have passed laws hindering or banning municipalities from building their own broadband infrastructure to protect the interests of giant telecom companies,” Warren said. Such homegrown networks are an organic response to market failure. In countless markets across the US, consumers usually only have the choice of their incumbent cable provider if they’re looking for faster broadband. These regional monopolies result in high prices, slow speeds, punitive bandwidth caps, and comically terrible customer service.


Frustrated by the lack of options, more than 750 communities across the US have either built their own broadband networks or struck partnerships with private companies to do so. One Harvard study showed that these networks tend to offer better, cheaper broadband and more transparent pricing since they’re more accountable to the local community. Such efforts wouldn’t exist if consumers were happy with their broadband service. But instead of building better, faster networks, many ISPs instead turned to lobbying. In exchange for campaign contributions, state lawmakers frequently and uncritically pass model legislation written by industry and distributed by organizations like ALEC. ISPs like AT&T have also been known to try and sneak such bans into traffic ordinances or other unrelated bills. “We will preempt these laws and return this power to local governments,” Warren promised.

In 2015, the previous FCC voted to pre-empt these protectionist state laws, claiming they hampered the FCC’s legal mission to bring broadband to all Americans in a “reasonable and timely basis.” But an appeals court struck down the FCC’s effort in 2016, claiming the FCC had overstepped its authority under the law. As such, any new effort would likely require Congressional action, something that’s never easy given the stranglehold the telecom lobby enjoys over state and federal lawmakers. This corruption was most recently reflected by the FCC’s assault on net neutrality, and the Congressional decision to kill modest broadband privacy laws at industry behest.

Warren’s broadband proposal also promises to appoint FCC Commissioners who’ll restore net neutrality, improve the state of US broadband mapping (an effort also frequently derailed by telecom lobbying), and tackle the various other tricks industry giants like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast routinely use to protect their regional monopolies.

“It’s time to crack down on all the anti-competitive behaviors that giant ISPs have used to steamroll the competition,” Warren said. “We will return control of utility poles and conduits to cities, prohibit landlords from making side deals with private ISPs to limit choices in their properties, and ban companies from limiting access to wires inside buildings.” Broadband often receives ample lip service during election season, though Warren’s plan is the most detailed by far when it comes to tackling the state and federal corruption responsible for making US broadband the poster child for mediocrity.