The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that broadband access is essential for distance learning, telework, and telehealth applications. To that end, on February 16, 2021, House Republicans announced a series of 28 bills that are intended to “improve” broadband competition and connectivity across the nation. One bill is of particular concern.
The “Communities Overregulating Networks Need Economic Competition Today” Act (“CONNECT” Act) claims to promote competition by limiting government-run broadband networks. Specifically, it states, “a State or political subdivision thereof may not provide or offer for sale to the public, a telecommunications provider, or to a commercial provider of broadband internet access service, retail or wholesale broadband internet access service.”
The proposal provides an exception that would allow existing state and municipal networks to continue to provide service in areas where there is not more than one commercial provider. Unfortunately, even if a municipal provider is allowed to continue providing service they would be barred from expanding service networks outside of the geographic areas in which the State or municipality lawfully operates.
Notably, the proposed bill expressly exempts the Tennessee Valley Authority from these restrictions. Of particular concern, it would also prevent the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) from preempting State laws that prohibit the creation and operation of state or municipal networks.
The FCC estimates that at least 14.5 million Americans don’t have access to broadband Internet. Municipal broadband networks provide critical connectivity resources for those in urban and rural areas that may not have other options for service.
Unfortunately, if enacted, this bill would stop states and municipalities from continuing to expand their service networks. It would also curb competition with traditional providers, limiting price and service quality in countless communities.
Local leaders welcome opportunities to work with elected officials on proposals that will, in effect, promote public and private investment. This attempt misses the mark as it erects new barriers for community-based networks while reducing public investment in broadband outright.