AT&T is Not Invincible

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The ill-considered bill in Georgia that would have prevented local communities from investing in their own broadband networks was defeated last night, and this is great news.

The bill was pushed by AT&T and Windstream, who argued that it would be unfair for public entities to "compete" with them. There are many problems with this line of thinking--for one, telecom companies like AT&T and Windstream themselves are heavily subsidized by the government (they get access to public rights of way, airwaves, and Universal Service funds). Government is heavily involved in broadband networks already so it seems odd to draw the line in exactly the place that would benefit AT&T. Some have argued that municipal broadband networks are just bad ideas to begin with--but even if this is true and some local broadband networks end up not working out we should encourage communities to experiment so everyone can find out what works and what doesn't.

The best reason why localities should be able to build their own networks is that those networks wouldn't be competing with anything at all--or at least not with a particularly formidable network. If a community feels forced to build its own networks it's usually because it's unserved or underserved by the incumbent companies. Some of them might have access to slow DSL, at best, which doesn't cut it anymore. There's a reason why the bill was defeated by a "bipartisan coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans who argued that private telecoms have failed to build reliable networks," as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Some advocates for municipal broadband might think that some politicians are ideologically opposed to it, but when they understand the issues at stake legislators at the state and local levels, and even in Congress, will put their constituents' interests ahead of loyalty to facile anti-government slogans.

The defeat of this bill shows that the state-level agenda pushed by AT&T, which manages to be both deregulatory (for AT&T) and regulatory (in passing laws preventing others from entering the market) at the same time, can be defeated when policymakers can see its consequences. With local broadband networks the consequences are clear: fewer, worse networks, and rural areas left unconnected.

But when it comes to dismantling the phone network and the legal protections that surround it, AT&T has had a lot more success. About 20 states have decided that a voice call that uses modern packet-switched technology behind the scenes doesn't qualify for the same consumer protections that voice has had for years--meaning that as networks are inevitably upgraded to better technology, perversely, their quality might go down. AT&T's been so successful in some states that it's taken its case to the national level, and Public Knowledge has been active in defending the fundamentals the phone network is built on. Unfortunately, those states where AT&T's bills have already passed have taken themselves out of this conversation. But as we have seen in the defeat of the Georgia bill, local voices who know about the challenges their communities face first-hand need provide needed insight into what those communities really need.

The FCC is already trying to figure out why some phone calls to rural areas are no longer going through. This is a complex problem but it's related to the general push to abandon long-standing principles of interconnection and reliability that have guided our communications networks until now. As these problems become more numerous, maybe it'll become easier for legislators to reject AT&T's agenda just as Georgia legislators did yesterday, since the results will be so visible. In the meantime, advocates for quality networks and rural access to communications need to keep teaching policymakers that going along with the telco's agenda will leave parts of America unconnected and without a voice in the digital future.

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