The fight for true broadband competition in the USA

New financial disclosures for a November ballot initiative show that a group backed by private internet providers [including Comcast] spent just over $900,000 to try and block city-owned broadband service in Fort Collins, Colorado.

The big spenders were nonetheless defeated by a citizens’ group that spent only $15,000 to support the bond measure, which passed with 57% of the vote on Nov. 7, approving up to $150 million in financing for a city-run broadband utility.

Analysis has shown that Comcast could lose as much as $23 million per year in Fort Collins alone if it faced competition from a city utility. But the stakes are much larger than that, as municipal broadband efforts spread from cities like Chattanooga to Seattle, Los Angeles and beyond.

Chattanooga’s network, which went online in 2010 over industry opposition, has turned a profit and helped finance upgrades to the city’s electrical grid, while forcing Comcast to improve its own service in that market.

Opponents have argued, though, that municipal systems have benefited from government subsidies. In addition to their public campaigns, private providers have worked to prevent government competition by seeking state-level legislation that takes away cities’ right to build their own services.

In 2017, according to ILSR, 19 states currently have laws on the books limiting the ability of municipalities to own and operate broadband networks.

The FCC in 2015 pre-empted some state-level anti-municipal broadband legislation, arguing that the legislation was anti-competitive. But last year an appeals court ruled that the FCC overstepped its authority when it made that move. The appeals court upheld states’ authority to make laws governing municipalities, including anti-municipal broadband legislation.