President Obama weighed in on the issue last month in a speech in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
“If there are state laws in place that prohibit or restrict these community-based broadband efforts,” Obama said, “we should do everything we can to push back against those old laws.”
AT&T declined to comment about service in Manchester or their position on city-owned broadband networks, as did Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable. They have filed numerous comments with the FCC opposing the agency from blocking the state laws.
CenturyLink, which provides Internet service in Tennessee, North Carolina and much of the United States, said their primary concern is for the taxpayers in the cities that want to operate their own networks.
“The issue is how best to deliver broadband,” said Melissa Newman, head of federal regulatory affairs at CenturyLink in Washington. “We are concerned that taxpayer funded, municipal-type broadband may not be the best use of taxpayer money. … When municipal broadband failures occur, the taxpayer is left on the hook.”
The fight against city-owned Internet networks may just be beginning.
The telecommunications giants including Comcast, AT&T and Time Warner Cable have spent millions of dollars to lobby state legislatures, influence state elections and buy research to try to stop the spread of public Internet services that often offer faster speeds at cheaper rates. AT&T alone spent more than $250,000 on lobbying in Tennessee last year, the Center for Public Integrity reported in August.
In Washington, the money has flowed even more. The top Internet providers and their trade associations spent about $88 million on 568 lobbyists to influence federal lawmakers and regulators, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That was enough to place the group in the top 12 of all lobbyists. That spending goes to lobby on all kinds of telecommunications issues, not just municipal broadband.
The Center’s report illustrated how municipal broadband service, especially in rural communities, can help boost businesses and create jobs. It contrasted the experience of Tullahoma with Fayetteville, North Carolina, which was thwarted from allowing its residents to tap into the city’s gigabit broadband network by state law.
Tullahoma’s job market has thrived, while Fayetteville’s has stagnated in recent years.
And that’s the point, said Jim Baller, the Washington lawyer who represents Chattanooga and Wilson in challenging the state laws.
“You are not going to attract a business to your community if what you’re offering is the kind of low level broadband connectivity that is available widely,” Baller said. “That is not the kind of infrastructure that is going to give your community or our country a competitive advantage.”