April 17, 2012

ALEC Wants You To Pay 750 Percent More For High-Speed Internet

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is the most powerful corporate front group you’ve never heard of. Drawing the vast majority of its financing from big corporations, the group allows these firms to help write bills that it then secretly passes off to state legislators to get turned into laws.

The organization has come under fire recently for backing “Stand Your Ground” laws and voter suppression efforts, leading to an exodus of some of its strongest corporate funders. But the group’s policy agenda stretches far beyond these areas, and impacts just about every area of American life.

Take public high-speed broadband Internet. A few years ago, the city of Wilson, North Carolina, decided that it would create its own broadband system, which it called Greenlight. The service offered speeds twice as fast as private competitors in the area for a similar price. Soon, the success of the service spread, and a number of other cities began offering municipal broadband systems that were cheaper and/or faster than private competitors’.

But state legislators — who received $600,000 in contributions from the telecom industry in the previous election cycle — reacted to the spread of these successful services by undercutting them with a bill that made it very difficult for cities to operate their own broadband systems. One provision in the bill made it illegal for cities to offer broadband services that are priced below their costs. “This bill will make it practically impossible for cities to provide a fundamental service. Where’s the bill to govern [cable provider] Time Warner? Let’s be clear about whose bill this is. This is Time Warner’s bill. You need to know who you’re doing this for!” thundered Rep. Bill Faison (D) at the time. The bill was unfortunately passed into law.

ALEC did not publicly say that it was behind the North Carolina bill, but the bill bears similarities to ALEC legislation.  ALEC is an outspoken opponent of municipal broadband and crafts model bills to limit and kill these systems. Telecom companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner are all ALEC funders.

ALEC also unsuccessfully worked to undercut a public broadband system proposed by the city of Lafayette, Lousiana. ALEC’s Louisiana state chair (a legislator) introduced a bill that would’ve placed onerous restrictions on how the city could use fiber-optic cables to provide cheap broadband. The broadband-undercutting bill “almost word for word, matched a piece of legislation kept in the library of the American Legislative Exchange Council.” The most damaging provisions of the bill were removed before it was passed, and major telecom companies sued to try to stop Lafeyette from building its system anyway. Fortunately, they lost.

Lafayette’s public system offers Internet speeds at a whopping 750 percent cheaper than rival Cox’s service at the lowest tier. That means that if ALEC and the telecoms had succeeded in shutting down the system, life would be a whole lot slower.

The next time you groan at the thought of paying your broadband bill, remember that some of America’s biggest corporations — ranging from FedEx to WalMart — are funding a group that works to make sure your city is barred from offering a cheaper and faster service.