Saturday, February 28, 2015

If You Want To See What The U.S. Broadband Market Really Looks Like, Take A Close Look At West Virginia

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Tech Dirt | Feb 27, 2015 | Karl Bode

from the dysfunction-junction dept

While sexy Google Fiber deployments get the lion's share of media attention these days, it's the notably less sexy service in states like West Virginia that continue to perfectly exemplify just how broken U.S. broadband really is. Local Charleston Gazette reporter Eric Eyre has quietly done an amazing job the last few years chronicling West Virginia's immense broadband dysfunction, from the State's use of broadband stimulus subsidies on unused, overpowered routers and overpaid, redundant consultants, to state leaders' attempts to bury reports highlighting how a cozy relationship with companies like Frontier, Verizon and Cisco has led to what can only be explained as systemic, statewide fraud on the taxpayer dime.

It's of course the one-two punch of regulatory capture and the resulting lack of competition that are to thank for West Virginia's problems, which certainly aren't unique across the country. In state after state, the largest, incumbent ISPs throw cash at the state legislative process, allowing them to literally write state telecom law aimed at protecting their uncompetitive geographical fiefdoms from real competition. Because the nation's suffering through a particularly nasty bout of partisan nitwit disease, when someone tries to do something about it, they're ironically assailed as anti-business, anti-American, or anti-states' rights.

I tend to focus on West Virginia as a shining example of this dysfunction because things have gotten so bad there, local players have stopped even the slightest pretense that the entire legislative process isn't under the thumb of the country's biggest and wealthiest telecom companies. Case in point is this latest report by Eyre citing complaints by West Virginia Delegate Randy Smith, who says things have reached the point where nobody, from any party, can get a bill through the West Virginia legislative process if it doesn't first get approval from Frontier Communications. From a recent post to his Facebook page:
"As you know, Frontier Communications is the only game in town for many rural communities in West Virginia when it comes to Internet service. After introducing the legislation, I spoke with someone in leadership and was told it'd go nowhere because it would hurt Frontier. In other words, Frontier has its hands in our state Capitol...No wonder they're called Frontier. Those are the kinds of speeds you'd expect on the American frontier in the 17th century."
What reckless, dangerous bills was Smith trying to pass? One would have restricted ISPs from advertising their service as "broadband" unless it offered speeds of 10 Mbps (the FCC's new definition is already 25 Mbps, or 10 Mbps for rural subsidized service). Another would have allowed consumers to take complaints about poor broadband service directly to State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey -- if the state Public Service Commission refused to hear their complaints. But because both would have marginally threatened Frontier's monopoly in the State, they weren't even seriously considered. Frontier's facing a lawsuit in the state for long repair delays and for advertising broadband speeds users can't actually get.

Again, West Virginia's certainly not unique; the ISP stranglehold over the state legislative process just tends to be more sophisticated and better obfuscated in larger States. Regardless of the state, attempts at reform are usually assailed by those professing to adore free markets, when more often than not what they really adore is being able to abuse government to help protect mono/duopoly revenues. That's why, although it was massively overshadowed by the net neutrality vote the same day, yesterday's FCC vote to begin gutting protectionist, ISP-written state laws is an incredibly important first step toward returning some degree of power back to local communities while taking the fight directly to the bloated and corrupt broadband industry status quo.

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