Michigan lawmakers passed laws in the past two years to eliminate red tape and limit government reach. The legislators established rules to ensure federal broadband money goes to private providers expanding in unserved areas while prohibiting government-owned networks from receiving the funds to overbuild in cities like Traverse City.
But, language in the Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy (BRIDGE) Act, the wide-ranging federal legislation that seeks to funnel tens of billions in taxpayer money for broadband growth in the U.S., would put the clamp on states trying to set their own broadband policies that limit government involvement and taxpayer funding of networks (GONs).
“This act would be terrible for Michigan,” Jarret Skorup, director of marketing and communications at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, told the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA).
As TPA previously reported, officials in Traverse City moved forward with plans to build their own network even though the city has a host of broadband options. Now, the Mackinac Center reports the network is behind schedule, over budget, and woefully lacking in customers – proving why the law was necessary.
Although state lawmakers crafted legislation to prevent municipalities like Traverse City from taking advantage of loopholes in existing law, Congress seeks to supersede their efforts.
“The BRIDGE Act would totally override these state laws,” Skorup said. “The state passed these laws to direct that money in the most efficient ways.”
Critics of the BRIDGE Act argue it tramples states’ rights, voiding laws that prohibit GONs and hamstrings the ability of state legislators to set their own broadband policy.
The bill also includes a “mother, may I” provision that would prioritize projects that get “a letter of endorsement … from the local government for each community.” Detractors argue the concept of requiring local regulators to offer a thumbs-up would have the effect of promoting GONs, which are a stated part of President Joe Biden’s agenda.
TPA has reported extensively on the failure of GONs across the U.S., dedicating a website to the issue called Broadband Boondoggles and releasing a report last year titled “GON with the Wind: The Failed Promise of Government Owned Networks Across the Country.” The examinations have found that municipal networks rarely live up to the promises of advocates, and often squander millions in taxpayer money.
LUS Fiber in Lafayette, Louisiana, was one of the GONs studied by TPA in the 2020 report. That system not only reportedly is deeply in debt, but it also lacks transparency. LUS declined to provide records in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, shielded by state laws.
Eric Peterson, director of policy at the Pelican Institute in New Orleans, told TPA that LUS is a prime example of why laws limiting GONs are needed.
“Seeing the feds potentially open the flood gates on this is concerning,” he said.
Randolph May, president of The Free State Foundation, noted recently that the federal government is attempting with the BRIDGE Act to preempt the laws of approximately 20 states that prohibit or limit GONs.
“States have adopted these laws in order to protect state taxpayers from having to subsidize the often financially unsuccessful muni networks and to prevent them from disadvantaging private sector competitors by virtue of the exercise of their control over rights-of-ways, permitting processes, and fees charged,” May said.
It’s not just the center-right that frets over the GON-promoting portion of the BRIDGE Act. Lindsay Lewis, executive director of the center-left Progressive Policy Institute, recently penned an op-ed in USA Today that argued the far left’s obsession with GONs is a part of misguided broadband policy that also includes the concept of “future proofing” internet by requiring 100/100 Mbps symmetrical speeds for networks constructed using BRIDGE Act funds.
“Some activists want to get local municipal governments into the business of building and operating complex broadband facilities — even in places that already have high-speed networks,” Lewis wrote. “The remaining true believers of this idea love to point to rare examples where government-owned networks are popular — Chattanooga is a favored poster child — but tend to ignore the much larger set of failed efforts that have drowned local taxpayers in a sea of debt and produced sub-par networks.”