Legislators aim to turn states into broadband backwaters

Regressive, telco industry-influenced state legislators are at it again, trying to kill communities’ right to determine their own broadband futures. Anti-community broadband bills are rearing their ugly heads in several states.

The anti-SOPA/PIPA crusades have given the public the taste of using the Net to stem some pretty ugly tides (The Internet Strikes Back), it’s time to apply similar online tactics at the statehouse. Why? Because the U.S. is at a point where its Internet future will be further diminished if more state bills pass that restrict communities to taking the train when most prefer to fly.

Trains or planes?

Around 1940, the railroads were in their heyday. They had made America great, railroads still basked in the glow of their role helping to conquer the West, they had nationwide infrastructure, ushered in innovations, and railroad barons carried clout in D.C. and beyond.

Post-World War II, airplanes were evolving into serious transportation vehicles that moved lots of people, mail and packages much faster than trains did. While railroads tried to make trains faster, more comfortable, etc., airlines made greater technological advances AND market advances. No matter what improvements railroads could make, those trains would never fly. Planes, however, got bigger, faster, and more popular.

Today’s telcos are the railroads. They’ve spent money to build infrastructure to a lot of places. But local governments, co-ops and nonprofits are building supersonic jetliners. Chattanooga, Tenn.; Santa Monica, Calif.; Wilson, N.C.; Lafayette, La. and dozens of cities and counties have fiber networks that kick telcos’ assets.

Copper wires might be ok, but they’ll never deliver a gig. That’s what cities and counties are delivering. Nor will the big corporations go to the places that need broadband the most. AT&T basically just told rural America “you’re on your own.” Verizon FiOS? If you don’t have it by now, you probably aren’t getting it.

So incumbents have flocked to the last refuge of a corporate scoundrel, the legislatures where their money can buy what they can’t do easily in a truly competitive market – bills that kill municipal broadband. In Georgia, they have an anti-muni bill in the state senate (SB 313) that defines broadband as 200 kbps!

In South Carolina, AT&T-influenced bill H-3508 reared its ugly head in the capital again this year as AT&T and a host of other providers are trying to get it passed after being stymied in past years. In a particularly grotesque travesty, communities in Washington state that requested better broadband were denied by the incumbent operators. Those communities then turned to Rep. John McCoy to bring a bill to the floor that would allow public utilities to build networks. But incumbents didn’t even let the bill get out of committee.

U.S. Broadband at the crossroads

People who understand the economic development impact true high-speed broadband, such as these members of the International Economic Development Council, can grasp the urgency of fighting this legislative threat. Georgia and South Carolina are not random blips on the radar screen, but the full-on escalation of a national push.

This push is brought to you by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group of corporate lobbyists who ghostwrite state bills behind closed doors that their pocket legislators then push on the floor. This “model” of anti-muni broadband legislation contains wording that is replicated in these latest bills and newspaper op-eds that attack community broadband.

That brings us back to Arab Spring and SOPA. The best way to fight the money and insider influence ALEC brings to bear is to enlist the Internet as a main vehicle of engagement. Enhance traditional communication with the Web to educate people to the advantages of community broadband and the 2,000 success stories that prove their viability. Use the Web to follow the money trail from incumbents to the pockets of legislators leading the anti-muni charge, and then expose these ties early, often and loudly.

Coordinate all the social network tools, Facebook and Twitter in particular, to rally local businesses and residents to call, e-mail and otherwise stay in front of legislators’ faces. Coordinate an endless stream of contacts with the media. And definitely occupy the statehouse with elected leaders and their constituents to make the case, as Georgia communities did recently. Pro-broadband supporters recruit strong business and other allies. The anti-SOPA crusade turned the corner when several Web giants flexed their muscles in a way D.C. could not ignore. The same leverage works at state capitols too.

This isn’t about unfair competition by local government. When Wilson’s 12-person IT department can plan, build and manage a network that can deliver speeds (up to a gig) 20 times faster than the best Time Warner Cable (s twc) offers, that’s competing with superior technology. When Comcast (s cscma) customers switch to Chattanooga’s gig network because of their public utility’s better customer service, that’s competent competition. When tiny Reedsburg, Wis. refuses to compete against the large cable company on price, but beats competitors by offering greater value such as a better selection of Internet services, they compete based on local credibility.

So U.S. communities have to ask themselves, are they going to stay stuck on the train or will they be zipping along at warp speed?

Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst and consultant who helps organizations develop effective broadband strategies. Listen to his radio show (Gigabit Nation) and follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) or via his blog.

Image courtesy of Flickr user dok1.