Muni ISPs are as common a carrier as any other

by Steve Blum • , , ,

Buried within a half million comments about common carrier regulation of broadband service, in the midst of a system crash brought about, or not, by a John Oliver rant, is a letter from 19 municipal (to one degree or another) Internet service providers supporting the Federal Communications Commission’s current effort to roll those rules back.

In what must have been an epic, nay, herculean, speed reading session, FCC chair Ajit Pai came across those comments and felt compelled to issue a press release trumpeting the blindingly obvious conclusion that, hey, these guys agree with me so they must be pretty smart. I hope he lets his sidekick, Michael “what I am unwilling to do and will never support is allowing government-sponsored networks” O’Rielly, in on his eureka moment.

The muni ISPs make a couple of points in their letter: imposed service standards are a burden for small providers and munis don’t really need regulation since they’re directly answerable to elected officials.

Our customers have choices and can opt for another provider if we degrade their Internet experience. Moreover, because we are effectively owned by our customers and responsive to them politically, we make sure their interests are the primary drivers of our businesses. We always provide our customers with unfettered access to legal content on the Internet. We never block, throttle, or impair our customers’ traffic nor engage in paid prioritization. We have always said we would adhere to any such principles adopted by the Commission, as we have been doing since the Commission first articulated its Internet Policy principles in 2005. Yet, the Commission ignored the evidence, and imposed the straight-jacket of utility regulation, subjecting us to the constant threat that the Commission or some other party may bring an enforcement action based on the “unknown and unknowable” general conduct standard.

There is truth in their arguments. But there’s also a generous helping of disingenuousness. For example, several of the ISPs are affiliated with muni electric utilities. Being small or governed by a city council does not exempt electric utilities from Federal Energy Regulatory Commission standards or from complying with California Public Utilities Commission safety rules regarding jointly owned utility poles. And they know it.

Munis properly have latitude that privately owned utilities do not enjoy. City councils are rightly reckoned to be at least as good as the CPUC at setting electric rates and protecting consumer interests. But it isn’t a total exemption from oversight. Nor is simply being small. The federal and state rules for small rural telcos are different than those for AT&T and Frontier, but there are rules they must follow nevertheless.

Common carriers and other public utilities are subject to a complicated web of federal, state and local regulation. Dealing with it is just part of the job.