On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado signed SB23-183, a bill eliminating a 2005 law that had proven to be a telecom-driven obstacle to building municipal broadband. The bill does a couple of things but most importantly, it “enables Colorado’s local governments to provide, or partner to provide, broadband internet service without having to pass voter referendums.” While a few Republicans voted with Democratic lawmakers to pass this legislation, every single vote against it in the state’s Senate and House alike was cast by a Republican.
The 2005 law required that an election be held for every municipal telecommunications decision. This allowed big telecommunications companies to spend inordinate amounts of money to sway the vote against local broadband construction, giving them the power to keep smaller competitors out of the way and retain control over the entire consumer base by default. But in recent years, these intentional obstacles have become less effective as the need for affordable high-speed internet access grows and telecom companies have been unwilling to meet many American communities’ infrastructural needs.
The blue state of Colorado has been one of the leaders in fighting back against well-funded telecom lobbying efforts. Colorado Broadband Office Executive Director Brandy Reitter released a statement, saying: “Today, the state took a big step in establishing a competitive economy for generations to come. SB23-183 removes the biggest obstacle to achieving the Governor’s goal to connect 99% of Colorado households [to high-speed broadband] by the end of 2027.”
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The move by Colorado Democrats comes two years after the Democratic-led Washington state Legislature passed a bill eliminating limits on municipal broadband. At the time, as Arstechnica points out, the decision in Washington state came in tandem with House Republicans announcing their plans to overreach by limiting government-run broadband networks throughout the country.
The importance of the Biden administration’s Democratic American Rescue Plan in supporting states’ pursuit of high-speed internet access cannot be overstated. Inside of the plan are tens of billions in dollars for the express use of providing Americans with affordable internet access. As Arstechnica reports, a big part of that federal grant money will be divvied up by BEAD, the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program; and states’ proposals now require disclosing whether they are willing to waive laws that restrict municipal broadband.
Colorado is not the only state working to free itself from the chokehold of big telecom. For almost a decade now, even red states have found that when Republicans and telecom companies try to hamper local broadband infrastructure builds, voters are not having it. As with most of the Republican Party’s unpopular policy ideas, GOP officials remain steadfast in their willingness to propose unpopular bills that would restrict affordable communications services for Americans.
Watchdog group BroadbandNow reports that there are “currently 16 states in total that have restrictive legislation against municipal broadband networks in the U.S.” However, the tides are changing and the promise of federal funds to help build much needed infrastructure is a big boon. The past couple of years saw Maine and New York* make moves to loosen restrictions and promote municipal broadband build-outs.
And while it is not essential that states with municipal broadband restrictions loosen those in order to get some of the federal grant money, conservatives will be hard-pressed to explain how and why they need federal funds if they are proposing that private businesses will do the job instead. More importantly, the logistics of choosing to argue with the BEAD program will likely lead to delays in procuring funds. That doesn’t help local conservative politicians hoping to pretend they’re working for their constituents. “Fiscally conservative” Republicans love nothing more than to take credit for federal money they voted against, especially when it helps to do something positive for the people they represent.
*Some of New York City’s municipal build-outs have recently been hampered by new Mayor Eric Adams, but this doesn’t reverse the general course of it in NYC.
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Can we have fairer, more representative elections in the U.S.? Absolutely, says Deb Otis on this week's episode of "The Downballot." Otis, the director of research at FairVote, tells us about her organization's efforts to advocate for two major reforms—ranked-choice voting and proportional representation—and the prospects for both. RCV, which is growing in popularity, not only helps ensure candidates win with majorities but can lower the temperature by encouraging cross-endorsements. PR, meanwhile, would give voters a stronger voice, especially when they're a minority in a dark red or dark blue area.