Don't blame local government for a lack of California broadband competition

21 July 2013 by Steve Blum
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Kicking back in California is no kickback.

I admit to being a Californian, so my objections to (what I consider to be) a rant by senior members of TechFreedom, a think tank as they put it, might be specific to my native State. That said, their contention in a Wired editorial that local government is to blame for poor Internet service is not consistent with the facts.

The core of their argument is that local governments control access to utility poles and underground conduit, and they restrict competitors – particularly cable companies – from accessing it in order to extract kickbacks.

Before building out new networks, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must negotiate with local governments for access to publicly owned “rights of way”…Local governments and their public utilities charge ISPs far more than these things actually cost. For example, rights of way and pole attachments fees can double the cost of network construction.

The history of broadband in California is the exact opposite. State rules prevent cities and counties from charging for right of ways. Relatively few local governments own electric utilities and almost none provide telephone service. Los Angeles and some nearby cities are the huge exception, but the vast majority don’t own utility poles and they control little enough telecoms-grade conduit.

Many that do – Palo Alto, Lompoc, Alameda for example – have built out competing broadband systems. Any competitive onslaught has been pointed in their direction by cable and telephone companies. I’m not saying it isn’t fair competition, but it is effective and shows that incumbents are hardly the victims of this piece.

In fact, the municipal franchises that developed over the past fifty years provided an alternate means for what were then upstart cable companies to get onto poles. Since then, the California legislature has pre-empted most local franchises, taking what the authors consider to be a major source of mischief off the table.

To be fair, telecoms companies run into problems when they try to put equipment boxes on public streets or sidewalks or build wireless facilities, but that’s more often the result of complaints from nimbys and the tin foil hat brigade than pushback from government officials.

Right now, the major source of competitive obstructionism in California is the cable lobby in Sacramento. On the whole, local governments are trying to be the solution, not the problem.