On Oct. 21, 2019, The American Conservative published a piece written by Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Christopher discusses broadband preemption and the importance of localities being able to pursue the broadband solution that best fits their needs. Read excerpts from his piece below:
When first presented with the idea of a city-run network, [Joey] Durel was skeptical but open minded. He looked toward the Lafayette Utility System, which already handled electricity, water, and wastewater for the community—and had a much better reputation than the cable and telephone monopolies—to make an assessment.
Durel soon determined that a city-run broadband network would provide better services at lower prices than Bellsouth or Cox, but he was under no illusion those companies would go quietly into the night. However, he probably didn’t expect such a challenge to his authority—a challenge that went right up to the state legislature to stop him. This was preemption, and Durel was about to get one heck of an education in how monopolies use the levers of government to get what they want.
Preemption is when the federal government or states preclude lower levels of government from enacting certain laws. The recent rise of conservative legislatures has actually led to more cases in which states are preempting localities—from plastic bag bans and minimum wage hikes, to sick time ordinances and tougher gun laws. In many, but not all cases, these are conservative legislatures preempting more liberal city laws.
Today, 19 states have laws that discourage municipal networks—ranging from outright prohibitions to sneaky de facto prohibitions and procedural challenges.
According to Pew polls, a strong majority of liberals, conservatives and independents believe local governments should be allowed to build their own networks. But in recent years, the elected officials at the state and federal level pushing to maintain or even increase barriers to municipal networks have been nearly uniformly Republicans. They appear captured by lobbyists who prey upon their desire for market solutions and distrust of government intervention.
One of the first cracks in this united front came from Arkansas earlier this year. As one of the least-connected states (despite hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies going to AT&T, CenturyLink, and more), the legislature slightly reduced preemption to allow local governments to access broadband grants to create public private partnerships. The Republican Women’s Caucus in the Senate led the way, recognizing that local governments can play an important role in creating and maintaining the competition so desired by state and national policy.