Dave Hughes: Colorado lawmakers bow to Qwest on municipal broadband

Half the bad laws enacted by the Colorado General Assembly come from back-room political conspiracies. The other half are the results of utter legislative incompetence.Half the bad laws enacted by the Colorado General Assembly come from back-room political conspiracies. The other half are the results of utter legislative incompetence.

A very bad law stemming from both causes is about to be enacted. It is Senate Bill 152, which was approved by the state Senate on Friday and now has to be reconciled with the House-approved version before being sent to Governor Bill Owens. The bill would gratuitously prohibit all Colorado municipalities from providing a high-speed Internet service to their citizens, and managing it like a public utility or any other essential public service. They are being barred from offering it either by themselves or in joint venture with others, regardless of whether it can pay for itself.

Why would any Colorado town or city want to do that? It’s because they more clearly understand than any of our dense urban legislators that the future Colorado economy among their constituents – manufacturing, marketing, farming and ranching, as well as medicine, education, and even distance learning from farms ranches and cabins – is ever more dependent on the Internet. Those 125 or more rural Colorado towns are sick and tired of waiting for the worst regional telephone company in America – Qwest – to deliver broadband services to them and thence to their citizens.

Qwest and its little brother, Comcast Cable, want only to cherry pick the fat-cat suburbs, big businesses, downtown Denver, and other big metropolitan areas. And block everybody else from competing.

Lawmakers themselves didn’t come up with the weird Machiavellian scheme contained in SB 152. Qwest did. The bill should be titled The Qwest Monopoly Protection Act. It is so intentionally convoluted and “requirements”- laden, with techno-gobbledygook and downright contradictory and vague measures, that even the Associated Press got the story backward, reporting the bill would stimulate Internet communications in small towns.

Actually, the bill effectively prohibits local governments, including entire counties, from serving their own citizens in the absence of the willingness or ability of the private sector to do so. It’s an anti-competition bill masquerading as a pro-private-sector competition bill – a big legislative lie.

Qwest quietly lobbied SB 152 into existence via the Colorado johnny-come-lately Denver-centered Democratic Senator Jennifer Veiga. She got Representative Cheri Jahn to sponsor it in the House. Neither of these legislators has a clue about the future importance of information technologies or the Internet or its economic implications for Colorado. I’d like to see either of them get connected, or set up a law practice in Redstone, where a desperate programmer had to sell his house and move to Glenwood Springs to get access.

Yet Glenwood’s City Council itself, years ago, voted for and deployed its own Internet in frustration at the unwillingness of Qwest to do so. By this law, it couldn’t do it again.

Veiga and Jahn’s political philosophy? Much the same as Marie Antoinette’s: “Let them eat dial-up cake.”

What motivated Qwest to do this? It came from their collusion with all the other regional telephone companies, who panicked recently after one large city – Philadelphia – tired of waiting for Verizon to get the Internet to them by trickle-down economics and started setting up its own municipal Internet. Now, at least 50 other cities across the country, including several in Colorado, think this is a very good idea. So do I. And those telephone companies have rushed to 12 other state legislatures to stop cities from serving their citizens. Colorado is their latest sucker.

Qwest doesn’t care a whit whether the Internet is available across the state. It certainly doesn’t invest in the Internet as a service to the public – but just for the sake of its bottom line.

In fact, Qwest knows it is incapable of making a profit delivering the Internet across rural Colorado for the foreseeable future, while small municipalities can do it, and very cheaply, especially using high-speed telephone company bypass wireless – the same technology I paid for out of my own pocket and deployed among the unconnected Nepalese on Mount Everest at 15,000 feet. Sherpa teachers and kids are now better connected from Namche, Nepal, than businessmen in Creede.

But this is the central political point the dense legislators refuse to admit: Qwest wants to stop anyone else – especially desperate cities whose citizens are without the benefits of the information age – from doing it themselves as public utilities in the public interest.

Municipalities offering Internet as a service is fundamentally no different from governments building the “information delivery” infrastructure of the last century – roads and highways and paying for them by tax money. Or from providing public utilities – power, water, gas, sewer – and charging for them by monthly billing. Why aren’t these illegal?

Our lawmakers can’t put 2 and 2 together. But I’ll bet they sure can count on Qwest’s political contributions which are aimed at keeping its dying corpus alive. Is that what is meant by the “culture of life”?

SB 152 should be killed. It accomplishes nothing, and retards everything in Colorado’s information future.

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About the author: Dave Hughes is a resident of Colorado Springs. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and 23-year veteran of the U.S. Army. He is the owner and founder of Old Colorado City Communications and has been an advocate of electronic information technology since its earliest years.