How Republicans Flip-Flopped on Government-Run Internet

Letting cities provide Internet service to their residents wasn’t always a partisan issue.

Laying down fiber-optic cable in Louisville, CO. 
National Journal
Aug. 26, 2014, 1 a.m.

Gov­ern­ment-run In­ter­net ser­vice is an ab­om­in­a­tion, a waste of tax­pay­er funds, and an as­sault on private in­dustry. And if states want to ban it, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should get out of their way.

That’s what con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans are say­ing now, but just a few years ago, top GOP law­makers were not only on board with mu­ni­cip­al In­ter­net—they were act­ively work­ing to pro­tect it.

In 2005, Re­pub­lic­an Sens. John Mc­Cain, Lind­sey Gra­ham, and Norm Cole­man—along with Demo­crats Frank Lauten­berg, John Kerry, and Russ Fein­gold—in­tro­duced a bill to block states from re­strict­ing loc­al gov­ern­ments’ abil­ity to provide pub­licly run and fun­ded In­ter­net ser­vice. Re­pub­lic­an Sens. Ted Stevens, Olympia Snowe, and Gor­don Smith joined as co­spon­sors in 2007 when the bill was re­in­tro­duced.

And Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Fred Up­ton, now the head of the power­ful En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, was a lead spon­sor of the le­gis­la­tion’s House coun­ter­part in 2007. At the time, the Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gued that the mu­ni­cip­al In­ter­net pro­jects could boost com­pet­i­tion and spur eco­nom­ic growth.

Those days are over.

Vir­tu­ally every House Re­pub­lic­an—in­clud­ing Up­ton—voted in Ju­ly to block the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion from strik­ing down state laws that pre­vent mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies from set­ting up their own broad­band ser­vices. The pro­vi­sion is now at­tached to the House’s ver­sion of a 2015 fund­ing bill for the FCC and oth­er agen­cies.

And 11 Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors fired off a let­ter to the FCC in June, say­ing it would be “deeply troub­ling” for the agency to “force tax­pay­er fun­ded com­pet­i­tion against private broad­band pro­viders.”

The Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion fol­lows FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er’s an­nounce­ment earli­er this year that he will con­sider over­turn­ing such state lim­its. And Wheel­er’s com­mis­sion is now re­view­ing pe­ti­tions from the cit­ies of Wilson, N.C., and Chat­tanooga, Tenn., to by­pass their states’ laws on mu­ni­cip­al broad­band.

The roles of Com­cast, the FCC, and Obama

So what ex­plains the GOP’s change of heart?

Some Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gue the de­bate is not about the vir­tue of mu­ni­cip­al In­ter­net, but rather the ques­tion of a fed­er­al board in­ter­ven­ing against state laws. States should be able to over­turn loc­al of­fi­cials’ de­cisions, but the FCC shouldn’t over­turn the states’ de­cisions, they ar­gue.

An Up­ton spokes­man claimed there’s noth­ing in­con­sist­ent about sup­port­ing a bill to nul­li­fy state re­stric­tions and op­pos­ing FCC ac­tion that would do the same thing.

“Voters and their elec­ted rep­res­ent­at­ives, not bur­eau­crats at the FCC, should make the de­cision wheth­er to spend tax dol­lars on mu­ni­cip­al broad­band,” the spokes­man said in a state­ment.

Mat­thew Berry, an aide to Re­pub­lic­an FCC Com­mis­sion­er Ajit Pai, ar­gued in a speech last week that the FCC can’t strike down state laws be­cause it doesn’t have clear au­thor­iz­a­tion from Con­gress.

But it’s hard to ig­nore the most sig­ni­fic­ant change since the Re­pub­lic­ans sponsored the mu­ni­cip­al broad­band bills a few years ago: The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has taken a po­s­i­tion on the is­sue.

In Feb­ru­ary, Wheel­er an­nounced he would re­write net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions that had just been struck down in fed­er­al court. As part of the an­nounce­ment, Wheel­er said he also wanted to look for op­por­tun­it­ies to “en­hance In­ter­net ac­cess com­pet­i­tion.” Over­turn­ing leg­al re­stric­tions on com­munity broad­band would be “one ob­vi­ous can­did­ate” for boost­ing com­pet­i­tion, Wheel­er said.

The state­ment, which con­nec­ted mu­ni­cip­al broad­band to the con­tro­ver­sial net-neut­ral­ity rules, in­stantly made the is­sue more par­tis­an. Wheel­er’s push on the is­sue has po­lar­ized Re­pub­lic­ans, but it’s also ral­lied Demo­crats to his side.

“Com­munit­ies are of­ten best suited to de­cide for them­selves if they want to in­vest in their own in­fra­struc­ture,” eight Demo­crats, led by Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key and Rep. Mike Doyle, wrote in a June let­ter to the FCC chief. The Demo­crats im­plored Wheel­er to “util­ize the full ar­sen­al of tools Con­gress has en­acted to pro­mote com­pet­it­ive broad­band ser­vice.”

While Re­pub­lic­ans are new op­pon­ents of mu­ni­cip­al broad­band, cable and tele­com com­pan­ies have been fight­ing the pro­jects for years. The com­pan­ies ar­gue that it’s not fair to have to com­pete with gov­ern­ment-backed pro­viders and they claim the pro­jects drive away com­mer­cial in­vest­ment. Also, like many Re­pub­lic­ans, the com­pan­ies have warned that the pro­jects can sour in­to mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar boon­doggles.

Com­cast, AT&T, Ve­r­i­zon, and oth­er large com­mer­cial broad­band pro­viders have been lob­by­ing state law­makers around the coun­try to set up re­stric­tions on loc­al In­ter­net ser­vice.

“Vir­tu­ally every state bar­ri­er to com­munity broad­band ini­ti­at­ives and pub­lic-private part­ner­ships has been the product of heavy lob­by­ing by cable com­pan­ies, tele­com com­pan­ies, or both,” ac­cord­ing to Jim Baller, an at­tor­ney who de­fends mu­ni­cip­al broad­band pro­jects.

The com­pan­ies also aren’t shy about donat­ing heav­ily to Re­pub­lic­ans—and Demo­crats—on the fed­er­al level.

An al­tern­ate his­tory

This de­bate would nev­er have happened if the bi­par­tis­an co­ali­tion sup­port­ing mu­ni­cip­al broad­band had suc­ceeded a few years ago.

In a 2005 Sen­ate floor speech, Mc­Cain ar­gued that his le­gis­la­tion to over­ride state re­stric­tions was ne­ces­sary to meet Pres­id­ent Bush’s goal of provid­ing “uni­ver­sal, af­ford­able ac­cess” to broad­band.

“When private in­dustry does not an­swer the call be­cause of mar­ket fail­ures or oth­er obstacles, it is ap­pro­pri­ate and even com­mend­able, for the people act­ing through their loc­al gov­ern­ments to im­prove their lives by in­vest­ing in their own fu­ture,” Mc­Cain said.

When Up­ton in­tro­duced his bill, he said that tear­ing down bar­ri­ers to mu­ni­cip­al broad­band would “foster even more com­pet­i­tion and choices for con­sumers across the na­tion.”

In 2006, their bill was a few short steps away from be­com­ing law, as it was in­cluded as a pro­vi­sion in a broad­er over­haul of tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions reg­u­la­tion. That lar­ger bill, au­thored by Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Joe Bar­ton, then chair­man of En­ergy and Com­merce, passed the House with 321 votes—in­clud­ing 215 Re­pub­lic­ans. Only eight Re­pub­lic­ans voted against it.

But fights over net neut­ral­ity and oth­er is­sues bogged the le­gis­la­tion down in the Sen­ate, and it nev­er be­came law.

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