While many states in the U.S. are passing laws that make it tougher for local communities to build their own broadband networks, Georgia has bucked that trend. A bipartisan vote of 70-94 on Thursday defeated House Bill 282 in the Georgia state legislature. The bill would have allowed new municipal broadband networks only in areas where Internet speeds were slower than 3 megabytes per second.
At least 19 states have passed laws restricting municipalities from creating publicly funded broadband networks, according to Internet user rights advocacy group Freepress. Municipal broadband is an important issue for many communities that see high-speed Internet access is as a factor in attracting new businesses. “You cannot get it, you cannot keep it without high speed fiber,” Georgia State Rep. Jay Powell, a Republican, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, referring to economic opportunities tied to high-speed Internet. The Journal-Constitution first reported the defeat of House 282.
Underserved communities often complain that larger Internet providers refuse to upgrade their infrastructure in areas where the cost of building the network outweighs potential new revenue. That’s what prompted the town of Wilson, North Carolina several years ago to build and operate its own broadband utility, Greenlight, instead of waiting for commercial ISPs to invest in the town’s infrastructure. Wilson created Greenlight before North Carolina restricted municipal broadband projects in that state.
It certainly makes sense from an economic point of view for larger companies avoid investing in communities where they can’t bring in enough revenue to justify the cost. The problems start when these companies then lobby state legislatures to restrict or shut down competition from publicly funded projects. Georgia’s bill, for example, was supported by Arkansas-based ISP Windstream, according to The Wall Street Journal. Companies such as AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner have lobbied for similar laws in other states, The Journal reported. Companies opposed to local broadband projects argue that publicly owned projects don’t have the same financial constraints as private businesses, giving the taxpayer-funded utilities an unfair advantage.
Many times, laws restricting municipal broadband allow exceptions to allow unserved or underserved areas to create their own public networks. But these exceptions sometimes define an underserved area as one where average speeds are around 1.5 to 2 megabits per second or slower. So if a local provider meets those speeds, but declines to upgrade its networks for significantly faster service, local communities may be out of luck.
Despite restrictions in 19 states, about 340 locally-funded broadband projects exist in the United States, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an advocacy group for local communities. Among the ISLR’s 340 projects are 35 communities in ten states that offer 1Gigabit-per-second Internet speeds, similar to Google’s Fiber project in Kansas City.