In an excellent piece titled “How Republicans Flip-Flopped on Government-Run Internet,” the National Journal outlines the disappointing political evolution of municipal broadband, from a bipartisan local choice issue to an anti-Obama Administration, pro-incumbent telecom, states’ rights issue.
It was not so long ago (2005, to be precise) that three Republican senators (John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Norm Coleman) joined three Democrats in sponsoring legislation that would enshrine the principle of local choice explicitly in law, preempting anti-muni state laws pushed by incumbent lobbyists. A year later, 215 House Republicans voted for a bill that included a similar preemption provision. In 2007, even more Republican Senators joined McCain and Graham, including Olympia Snowe, Ted Stevens, and Gordon Smith. Their communications bill, including local choice provisions, narrowly missed becoming the law of the land due to fights over unrelated net neutrality issues.
Yet somehow, in 2014, we have the Blackburn anti-muni amendment passing the House floor with nearly unanimous Republican support: 223-200. There are multiple reasons for this, including the generational shift in the Republican Party away from moderates like McCain and towards the more insurrectionist Tea Party. The Journal article also cites the ubiquitous hostility to anything associated with President Obama, even extending to statements made by his nominees at the FCC in favor of federal preemption. Ever greater lobbying spending by cable and telecom incumbents has helped muddy the water for municipal broadband as well.
Yet even some of the same Republicans who once supported local choice now oppose it. Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the current and former Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that handles communications issues, was one of the leading figures in pushing the bill that included preemption in 2006 and 2007. In 2014, he joined his caucus in voting for Blackburn’s amendment to stop such preemption. From the Journal:
An Upton spokesman claimed there's nothing inconsistent about supporting a bill to nullify state restrictions and opposing FCC action that would do the same thing.
"Voters and their elected representatives, not bureaucrats at the FCC, should make the decision whether to spend tax dollars on municipal broadband," the spokesman said in a statement.
This is conveniently myopic logic, considering it is voters and their elected representatives at the local level who are being blocked from deciding municipal broadband issues in some 20 states but the very laws Upton has helped keep in place.
The article, while somewhat disheartening about the current state of things, also underscores a fundamental truth about community networks: they are not intrinsically partisan. There is no set-in-stone law that says Republicans must oppose them at all costs. They are not about government mandates, the size of government, executive overreach, or any other red herring. Community networks are about choice, exercised by residents and the elected officials that are their neighbors, to decide for themselves what they need and how to get it. It doesn’t get much more Jeffersonian than that.