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Comcast's silly propaganda helped kill municipal broadband projects

073014 comcast flier
Credit: Motherboard

Comcast once passed out these ridiculous fliers warning of the horrors of municipal broadband

A little more than 10 years ago, Comcast stuffed mailboxes in Batavia, Illinois, in the weeks leading up to a vote on a referendum measure attempting to establish a municipal broadband network, warning of failed projects and other horror stories that would come to life if they voted in favor of it.

The fliers, one of which can be seen above and others which are published at Motherboard, likened municipal broadband to “ghosts” and “goblins,” claimed that the referendum proponents didn't even have a business plan for the project, and, strangely, implied that the local women who voted in favor of it didn't understand their priorities.

All of this was done while keeping the source of these fliers – Comcast and SBC Communications, which later merged with AT&T – in the finest of fine print. Most of the information meant to scare off the voters was embellished, according to the Motherboard story:

The companies cite case studies of municipal fiber programs that later ended up being successful, or cite programs that died because of telecom interference and lobbying in other states; they cite figures that are worst-case scenarios that would occur only if literally zero people in the cities signed up for municipal broadband.

The tactic worked, however, leading residents of Batavia and nearby Geneva and St. Charles to vote the measure down twice – in April 2003 and November 2004 – even though more than 72% of area residents who responded to a 2001 survey were in favor of a broadband and cable overhaul.

The Motherboard article goes in-depth (and is worth a read) on the full propaganda efforts put forth by Comcast and SBC Communications at the time, from the unfortunately phrased polling questions to the inequality between the money spent by the ISPs and the proponents of the municipal broadband referendum.

The example may be 10 years old, but it’s hard evidence of the lengths that ISPs are taking to protect their interests in areas where local governments are considering providing broadband, including in areas that the ISPs choose not to serve anyway.

Earlier this year, the Kansas state Senate proposed legislation that was written by a cable industry lobbyist and aimed to prohibit state and local government agencies not only from building their own cable and broadband services, but also from seeking their own agreements with companies like Google, which has seen massive success with its 1-gigabit Fiber program in Kansas City. The language in the bill essentially gave ISPs the freedom to pick and choose which markets in the state they’d serve, but prevented those in small towns which the ISPs deemed unworthy of an investment from seeking alternatives or building their own networks.

Opponents to the bill eventually got the state Senate to withdraw the bill, but other states haven’t been so lucky – 20 states have laws on the books that limit or restrict municipal broadband.

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