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Google, Yahoo fighting on both sides of municipal broadband debate

Google is one of several companies supporting groups on both sides of the argument.

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Credit: Google

Last week the Internet Association submitted an official statement (PDF) urging the Federal Communications Commission to intervene in proposed state-level laws that seek to prohibit municipalities from deploying and maintaining their own broadband networks.

The Internet Association is essentially a lobbying organization that says it is “dedicated to advancing public policy solutions to strengthen and protect internet freedom, foster innovation and economic growth and empower users.” It supports net neutrality, patent reforms that could eradicate patent trolls, and the protection of privacy of internet users, among many other causes in the technology industry. The group boasts a long list of very high-profile technology companies, including Google, Amazon, Yahoo, Reddit, and PayPal.  

The group's statement come in response to the FCC’s request (PDF) earlier this summer for comments from the public on its role in state-level debates over municipal broadband rights. The FCC issued its request in response to two proposed bills aiming specifically to prevent municipal networks in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, from expanding their networks to neighboring towns. Lawmakers in 20 states have already passed laws that either place similar restrictions on or prohibit municipal broadband outright, and one such bill proposed in Kansas was withdrawn from consideration last year after its critics pointed out that it threatened to limit internet access in the state’s rural areas.

The Internet Association used this opportunity to call on the FCC to raise its minimum required speed of 4 Mbps for broadband and crack down on the ISPs’ use of hardware that filters out competitors’ content. Ultimately, though, the Internet Association is urging the FCC to stop all legislative and regulatory efforts to restrict municipalities’ rights to provide public broadband services.

Municipal broadband projects often pop up in markets that ISPs deem unworthy of an investment, often because their low population would limit potential revenue. It’s a pretty simple idea – if nobody is offering local citizens high-speed internet, then the local government creates the offering itself. Then these small towns’ schools, hospitals, businesses, and homes are equipped with the same high-speed internet found in their big-city counterparts.

What’s happening in Chattanooga and Wilson is exactly what ISPs and their lobbyists have been trying to prevent. Chattanooga, for example, has earned the nickname “Gig City” because of its 1-Gig broadband offering. Once these networks expand into other towns, they begin to cut into potential markets that ISPs could serve.

To help prevent this sprawl, ISPs enlist lobbyists to pitch their case to lawmakers in the states where this is an issue. For example, the debate over municipal broadband in Kansas last year was the result of a bill that many claimed was written by a cable industry lobbyist.

One organization that has played an important role on this side of the debate is the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC for short. ALEC is not really a lobbyist group itself, but acts as what many have described as a “matchmaker” for corporations and lawmakers with shared interests. Through ALEC, company executives can meet privately with lawmakers to discuss their interests.

Among many other areas of public policy, ALEC works with technology companies. It even has a page on its website deriding municipal broadband, warning that "such projects could erode consumer choice by making markets less attractive to competition because of the government's expanded role as a service provider." So it’s probably no surprise to hear that Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable have all been ALEC members for years. It's in their interests.

But a Daily Beast report from August 2013 outed Google as a member of ALEC’s Communications and Technology Task Force, alongside several other tech companies, including Yahoo and Yelp. All three are also members of the Internet Association, whose stances on net neutrality and broadband are the polar opposite of ALEC's.

After the Daily Beast article unveiled Google’s affiliation with ALEC, dozens of activist groups pointed out the paradox in a public letter calling for the company to leave the organization. Google's only response came in a reply to Ars Technica’s request for comment: "we aren't going to be commenting on this letter."

So when a group like the Internet Association speaks out on a given issue, it doesn't necessarily mean that all of its member groups are giving it their full support. Some affiliations are more valuable in public, while others are only valuable in the dark.

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