What a fight for broadband tells us about democracy

ISPs have once again embarked on a campaign of war against communities and their efforts to create faster broadband networks. America, take note. This could be your community next.

The battle of the moment is in Longmont, Colo. where Comcast (S cmcsa) and its allies are spending big to halt a November 8 1 ballot measure that allows residents and businesses in Longmont to consider options for bringing broadband to their community. It’s part of a pattern seen in many places when communities take broadband matters into their own hands after incumbents refuse to deliver the services communities want.

If Comcast wins, Longmont citizens lose. The city won’t be able to even explore public-private partnerships, public ownership or any other business model that could put them on par with Chattanooga, Santa Monica, Calif. and the many muni broadband networks nationwide.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Longmont’s ballot fight is actually a drama in two acts. In 2009, Longmont put an initiative on the ballot to consider a community broadband network. A telco-backed state law in Colorado passed in 2005 mandates that communities hold a referendum before they can embark on any plans for community broadband.

What may seem like a simple matter of putting democracy into action actually corrupts the democratic process. The local election becomes a corporation-fueled battle at the ballot box where incumbents can outspend and out-market the community effort. That worked in Longmont two years ago.

At that time Comcast, via an astroturf group known as No Blank Check, spent $250,000 to spread an assortment of half-truths, fear, uncertainty and doubt about community broadband in general and Longmont’s intent in particular. For example, the group’s most frequent distortion of facts is that all muni networks are failures, a myth clearly dispelled by this map of 130 successful community networks, some of which have been operating since the 1990s. The City of Longmont (its Mayor, City Council, City CIO, etc.) by law are severely limited in speaking about the ballot initiative, so voters mostly saw just one side of the issue.

Try, try and try again.

Fast forward to 2011. The citizens of Longmont are much wiser and more determined than ever to expose and refute opponents’ untruths, and take back their right to determine what is best for their connected future. Hence, Ballot Question 2A: “Without increasing taxes, shall the citizens of the City of Longmont, Colorado, re-establish their City’s right to provide all services restricted since 2005 by Title 29, article 27 of the Colorado Revised Statutes….” (read the rest of the referendum).

Businesses and individuals are rallying behind the referendum, with an endorsement and strong show of active support from the Longmont Area Economic Council.

Take a peek behind the curtain.

Before tackling opponents’ false statements, communities have to get to the source that fuels opponents’ campaign activities. So far, Comcast’s astroturf ally, Look Before We Leap, has spent $239,000 for what amounts to buying votes in a town that only has 63,000 people old enough to cast one, and there are three weeks left until the election.

According to the local paper, these are the organizations contributing to and/or spending to fight the referendum:

  • Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association – 3 members of Board of Directors, and the VP, are all Comcast executives.
  • Rocky Mountain Voter Outreach – Comcast is a client
  • Drake Research and Strategy – Comcast is a client
  • SE2 (PR firm) – Comcast is a client
  • Mark Stevens – Attorney for Comcast, supposedly on sabbatical

There’s also a post from the blog, Longmont’s Future, that clearly highlights Look Before We Leap’s link to Comcast:

Tonight’s candidate debates at Silver Creek High School were instructive in more than a few ways.

First of all, the good folks from Look Before We Leap – which does not advertise its backers – were happy to tell me where they were from. “Denver,” said one, and “Boulder”, said the other. By the way – they packed up and left early. I guess they had a longer drive.

They were also happy to tell us where the money was coming from: Comcast.

“Is Comcast behind your group?” Vince Jordan asked.

“Yes, they are one of our backers,” came the reply.

These are the same two guys who made such a spectacularly underwhelming attack on 2A at a recent Longmont City Council meeting.

Bringing the Longmont fight home

Why should Longmont’s battle matter to the average American? First, do people really want their hometown’s future governed by giant telecom and cable corporations whose executives (and profits) do not reside in the communities they are crippling? A recent national survey of economic development professionals points to the various economic impacts broadband can have on local economies. This is what Longmont and other communities can miss out on if Comcast, Time Warner, (s twc) and others are allowed to buy local votes and state legislators in order to get anti-muni network laws passed.

Second, the core of the problem with broadband (or the lack thereof) in U.S. communities is the lack of competition. Incumbents do not want it, they fear it and they have a rabid Pavlovian response to kill anything that even hints of competition. As the FCC marches toward whatever eventually becomes Universal Service Fund (USF) reform, communities need to keep their fingers crossed – or better, aggressively lobby the FCC for – reform that makes it easier for communities like Longmont to insert competition into the mix. Longmont is important because a win here is one more step toward a more competitive broadband world. And with that, we all win.

Longmont farm image courtesy of Flickr user SteveB in Denver. Longmont lake image courtesy of Flickr user Bryce Bradford.

Craig Settles is a municipal broadband expert and host of the Gigabit Nation radio show.