Regulators are now off the backs of big internet providers. Thanks to a resolution signed by President Trump earlier this month, consumer-friendly privacy rules passed by the Obama-era Federal Communications Commission won’t take effect. Rules designed to protect net neutrality—the idea that internet providers shouldn’t be able to give certain content preferential treatment—seem likely to fall next.
Republicans argue that the government should stay out of regulating the internet. And, in a perfect world, they’d be right. Ideally, if your internet service provider slipped permission to use your browsing history for ad targeting into its fine print or decided to charge you more to access Netflix than Hulu, you’d just switch to a different provider that offered better terms.
But that’s not an option most people in the US have.
‘When regulators get out of the way, they hand the market to incumbents.’
According to an FCC report released last year, only a little more than one-third of the population had more than one internet provider that offered speeds of 25 Mbps or more, the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband. For rural America, the situation was even more dire. Fewer than half of rural residents had access to a single 25 Mbps provider.
This lack of choice isn’t for lack of demand. The biggest internet provider in the country is, after all, also the country’s most hated company. If that’s not enough, what will it take to expand the number of choices people have for broadband? How could the market for internet service turn into an actual market?
“The answer the incumbents will give you is, ‘Get government out of the way,’” says Joshua Montgomery, founder of the Lawrence, Kansas-based fiber-optic internet provider Wicked Broadband. “But the reality is that terrestrial wired broadband is a natural monopoly. So when regulators ‘get out of the way,’ they hand the market to incumbents.”
Instead of politicians throwing out policies designed to protect consumers, broadband entrepreneurs say governments at all levels could encourage more competition by taking a small but active role. For more broadband choice, encourage your elected officials to make these three things happen:
Allow Smaller Providers to Lease Infrastructure
The ideal solution, smaller broadband providers say, would be for the Comcasts and Charters of the world to lease them their infrastructure. Instead of actually having to build a new network, trench more pipes, or string more wires, companies like Wicked could compete on price and customer service. They could set their own privacy and net neutrality policies. Much of Europe, where broadband prices tend to be far cheaper than in the US, already regulates telecommunications systems this way. Such an approach might seem to defy free-market principles—shouldn’t Comcast have exclusive access to the network it built? But leasing deals would create a true, thriving market where now exists only a monopoly or duopoly.
The problem is an almost total absence of political will to force broadband providers to share their infrastructure. “Even in the Obama-era FCC, which was the most bullish on competition, there was not receptivity to going to this model,” says Dane Jasper, founder of the San Francisco-based internet provider Sonic. Regulators seem to believe that this is too radical an idea for the US, despite the fact that until 2005, DSL internet providers had to lease their wires.
Without federal support, some municipalities are building their own high-speed internet services. (Notable efforts include Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Lafayette, Louisiana.) So far, these cities have leaned toward selling internet access through publicly-owned utility companies. But they could also build the infrastructure and then lease it to private companies. The problem: Thanks to telco lobbyists, many states have laws preventing or discouraging municipalities from competing with private internet providers, even in areas where there is little to no broadband access. In 2015, the FCC passed a set of regulations that would have superseded those state laws, but the Supreme Court threw the FCC’s rules out. State governments that are serious about giving their citizens more options should start by making sure cities are allowed to build their own networks–something that 70 percent of the population supports, according to a recent poll by Pew, including about 67 percent of Republicans.
Improve Access to Utility Poles
If forcing incumbents to share their networks–or using public funds to build new network–doesn’t happen, there’s still one other incredibly important but often overlooked piece of infrastructure to which smaller internet providers need more access: utility poles. “Poles are the primary battlefield for competitive internet access in America,” Jasper says.
If a company wants to string a new cable along a utility pole, the existing cables usually need to be re-arranged. That means the local telephone company will come out and move its cable. Then the cable company will move its cable. Wireless providers often have cables serving their cell towers, and all those must also be moved, as do any cables used by other telecommunications businesses. This process, called “make-ready” can take months or years, because under federal law, each company has 60 days to complete its work.
What’s more, requesting rearrangement tips off the incumbents that a new competitor is coming to town. “The incumbents, meanwhile, can upgrade their networks, improve the delivery of their services, and solidify their customers in long-term contracts,” says Jasper. “So then this new market entrant shows up and finds all the customers, six months ago, got into a two-year contract for a shiny new 250 Mbps connection.”
A few cities, such as Nashville, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky, have tried to fix this problem by mandating something called “one touch make-ready.” Basically, this rule requires every company using a utility pole to hire a single contractor to do all the make-ready work at once.
Mandating one touch make-ready is perhaps the most important thing that local, state, and federal governments could do to help smaller internet providers expand their footprints. “For me, that would be the top priority,” says Monica Webb, who handles government relations at Ting Networks, a company that offers fiber-optic internet in parts of Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland.
Not only would one touch make-ready speed up the process for new internet service providers, it would reduce the amount of time that roads or sidewalks need to be shut down in order for technicians to move cables. But established telcos have fought the idea. AT&T and Charter sued Louisville last year over its one touch make-ready ordinance, and AT&T and Comcast sued Nashville. Neither lawsuit has been resolved yet.
Meanwhile, the FCC is seeking feedback on the idea of mandating one touch make-ready nationwide, as well as the possibility of reducing the amount of time that companies have to complete their make-ready work. But Jasper says even if the FCC passes a one touch requirement, state laws could in some cases preempt the federal rules.
Streamline the Right-of-Way
New regulations regarding access to utility poles or other infrastructure would help smaller internet providers. But these companies too would like to see some red tape removed.
Building new networks means trenching pipe across public land and constructing small buildings that house networking equipment (like Google’s “fiber huts“). Gathering all the necessary permits to cross state lines or build on public property can also take months or years, and require talking to countless agencies. Those permitting processes are in desperate need of streamlining. Webb emphasizes that internet companies don’t need preferential treatment when it comes to, say, environmental regulations. But the process does need to be accelerated.
Ultimately, fixing any of these problems will require local, state, and federal leaders to stand up up to big telcos and do what’s right for the public. And that means they need to hear from the public. You might not be able to vote for better internet with your wallet. But if your representatives won’t enable the internet market, you can always still vote at the ballot box.
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