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Courts Shoot Down Another Barrier to Community Broadband

Court ruling makes it easier for Connecticut towns and cities to build better, faster, cheaper broadband networks.

by Karl Bode
Nov 18 2019, 1:00pm

Connecticut this week was the latest state to shoot down industry-backed barriers preventing your town or city from building its own broadband networks, even if nobody else will.

Across the U.S., countless towns and cities either have no broadband at all, or are stuck with just one over-priced internet service provider (ISP). A lack of serious competition means ISPs often have no incentive to expand or improve their networks, and revolving door regulators ensure government usually won’t pressure them to try harder.

In response, more than 750 U.S. communities have started building their own locally-owned broadband networks, despite the industry’s near-constant effort to undermine them.

Nineteen States have passed industry backed laws prohibiting your town or city’s right to build its own broadband networks, even in cases when nobody else will. ISPs are also successful in getting state and local governments to bury restrictions in unrelated measures, as AT&T did when it tried to hamper community broadband in Missouri via an unrelated traffic ordinance.

One favored tactic by incumbent ISPs is to block competitors from accessing essential utility poles, something that hampered Google Fiber as it tried to disrupt the status quo. In Connecticut, local incumbents have spent years trying to stop community broadband builders from accessing either utility poles or fiber conduit, professing it to be a safety hazard.

Last year, Connecticut’s Public Utility Regulatory Agency (PURA) sided with large incumbent ISPs, declaring that communities could not use utility pole space for municipal fiber deployment, delaying community fiber ambitions. Municipalities and the state Office of Consumer Counsel (OCC) were quick to file suit, stating the PURA had no authority to make such a call.

Previous rulings backed by the telecom sector had stated towns and cities could only use this “gain space” for government or school networks, bot the broader public. But a ruling this week by Connecticut Superior Court Judge Richard Shortall overturned those restrictions, settling years of debate over a “municipal gain” law whose origins stems from the telegraph era.

“This is a big victory for our office, the municipalities and for the residents and businesses of the State of Connecticut,” Consumer Counsel Richard Sobolewski told Motherboard.

“The ruling is important because we think it correctly confirms the municipalities right to use the municipal gain to try to solve broadband access and affordability problems as a means to better serve their citizens and businesses,” he added.

One of the biggest opponents of allowing access is Frontier Communications, the nation’s eighth largest ISP with 3.7 million users. The company has been under fire for letting its broadband networks literally fall apart, and has faced investigations from Minnesota to West Virginia for failing to fix DSL and phone outages on a timely basis.

Frontier did not respond to a request for comment from Motherboard. In the last year alone, the company has been accused of abusing taxpayer funds and charging customers rental fees for modems they own, behaviors the Ajit Pai FCC has refused to do anything about.

As such, it’s not terribly surprising that locals have been clamoring for alternatives. Especially given that studies show that community run ISPs tend to provide faster, cheaper, service with more transparent pricing (read: no stupid, hidden fees). Locally-run outfits also tend to be more directly accountable to the local populace since they actually live in the area.

Talking about utility poles may not be sexy, says Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, but purging these protectionist restrictions helps pave the way for getting out from underneath telecom monopoly domination.

Mitchell’s organization maintains a map of both community broadband networks and the industry efforts to crush them. He said that while Connecticut doesn’t have any state laws hindering community networks, “the state is very responsive to whatever Comcast and Frontier want”—a problem that’s far worse in states like Tennessee.

“This is huge in terms of removing a barrier to new networks in Connecticut and will be an experiment to see how it can result in new deployment,” Mitchell said.

From Connecticut to Colorado locals are fighting tooth and nail against a powerful broadband industry intent on protecting the broken status quo by any means necessary. And while ISPs enjoy complaining about the unfairness of it all, there’s an easy solution to the “problem” that doesn’t involve lobbying, laws, or lawsuits: just offer better, faster, cheaper broadband service.

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