Amid calls for a public power utility in Ann Arbor, there is a comparative silence on municipal broadband in the city. Broadband access is a key equity issue today, especially with the rise of remote work in the wake of COVID-19. Access to, and choice in, quality broadband service is essential to providing educational and employment opportunities to many Americans. So, why are we not talking about bringing municipal broadband to Ann Arbor? The answer lies in state law.
According to the Center for Public Integrity in 2014, 20 states restricted or outright prohibited municipalities from running their own ISPs. Michigan was, and still is, one of those states. MCL 484.2252 imposes various restrictions on how and where municipalities can provide internet service, including the requirement that any municipality wishing to establish its own ISP “has received less than 3 qualified bids from private providers.” By imposing such restrictions, the state is perpetuating the virtual monopolies that ISPs have over many of their customers.
Ann Arbor residents seeking internet access have little, if any, choice in provider when getting new internet service. BroadbandNow lists several ISPs in Ann Arbor. In many places, however, only one quality option is available. The result is that many residents are stuck with one choice, giving providers free reign over these customers. Through laws like MCL 484.2252, commercial broadband providers have lobbied state governments to help bolster their monopolies.
Lobbyists seek to impose these restrictions across the country, supposedly to protect taxpayers from what private ISPs and their supporters characterize as “wasteful spending.” Many of these claims are misleading or outright false. Some high-profile “failures” are the direct result of political meddling with functional systems, like Marietta FiberNet and others.
In Holland, Michigan, Holland Fiber has received the go-ahead for a full buildout of its system. This will be funded by a 20-year millage, which was voted on and approved by the people of Holland. Holland’s system is exempt from the law that prevents most other communities in the state from building their own broadband networks as it is grandfathered in. Holland’s voters want municipal broadband, and are willing to pay for it. If their city had not had an early start, the current law would have prevented this under the guise of “protecting” its citizens.
When legislators take issue with government services like municipal broadband, it is often argued that the government does not stand to make enough money from its efforts. This argument is fundamentally flawed. When a government provides a service to its citizens, its goal is not to turn a profit. Few question the profitability of public roads and highways, fire and police forces, schools, and other such services. It is time, despite the cries of the private telecom lobby, to view the internet in a similar way. By preventing municipalities from establishing ISPs, Michigan is stifling competition which could improve internet access for many of its citizens and deter monopolistic control over internet price and quality. Restricting local governments does little to protect their citizens; on the contrary, it hurts consumers and benefits big telecom companies. Michigan can, and should, do better for its citizens.