Comcast, AT&T Try Again To Stall Google Fiber In Nashville By Writing Law To Slow It Down

Image courtesy of Adam Fagen

There’s been a fight a-brewing in local politics in Nashville for weeks. At its most basic, it’s some disagreement about utility regulation. But it’s also, an another level, every fight about broadband competition — and the lack thereof — going on in the U.S. right now, distilled down into one city. Our players? Google, Comcast, AT&T, and the Nashville metro council.

The council voted recently to move forward with a piece of legislation that would make it easier for Google Fiber to come to town. Where you see proposals, though, you see counter-proposals. And as Ars Technica reports, the latest counter-proposal is brought to you by none other than AT&T and Comcast, the incumbents that are trying to fight Google’s entry in the first place.

To return briefly to the department of back-story: The regulation being proposed by the city council would basically change the rules about who has to do what on utility poles, and instead of every adjustment requiring a million phone calls to a zillion companies, would let whoever is working on the pole simply make adjustments as necessary themselves.

From that deeply uninteresting-sounding piece of regulation, though, are big new things born: in reality, it would let Google just come in and get the cables for Google Fiber strung up around town quickly, without having to face interference from the incumbents — that’d be AT&T and Comcast — over every. single. wire. on. every. single. pole.

AT&T and Comcast, of course, have a vested interest in not making it easy for a well-liked competitor with fast, reliable, price-competitive service to come to town without a fight.

The saga’s been going on for weeks. We learned back in early August about the Nashville council’s tentative plans to enact the one-touch proposal, and Comcast and AT&T’s strong objections — even though neither company had yet seen the full proposal.

The city’s mayor seemingly got tired of all the saber-rattling and, in mid-August, basically asked everyone to sit down and hash out a compromise like grown-ups.

That meeting did indeed take place, but did not exactly advance talks or engender compromise. And a majority of the city council basically decided not to care what AT&T and Comcast think about more competition coming to town, and in early September voted 32-7 to move ahead anyway.

A margin of 32-7, while an overwhelming majority, is not unanimity, though — and a counter-proposal from one of those dissenters is where we find ourselves today.

One of the dissenters, Sheri Weiner, asked AT&T and Comcast to come up with a competing proposal before the final vote to adopt any new rule. And so they did.

Weiner told Ars that she would “file a resolution if they had something that made sense and wasn’t as drastic” as the Google-Fiber friendly rule she earlier dissented from. She also told Ars that she intends to edit the version that the businesses submitted, before the vote takes place, but that she “had them [AT&T and Comcast] submit it for me as I was out of town all last week on business.”

AT&T denied to Ars Technica that it literally drafted the resolution that Weiner is putting forth, though did say that they, “Welcome the work that is being done to craft a better solution.” Comcast didn’t comment at all.

The incumbent-friendly counter-proposal, meanwhile, isn’t actually a law so much as it is a suggestion. After receiving Weiner’s suggested edits, it would cut from 45 days to 30 days the amount of time the Nashville Electric Service has to process permit applications, and gives companies 45 days after receiving a permit to complete work. It also sets a sort of ideal target of working on an average of 125 utility poles per week, and setting fines of $500 per pole per month of delay.

Those fines would be $500 per pole in the first month, $1,000 per pole in the second month, and $1,500 per pole in the third month of delay — not exactly legendary sums for Comcast (current value: $159.8 billion) or AT&T (current value: $245.4 billion) to come up with.

Of course, Comcast and AT&T aren’t the only ones with a hand in legislation; Google and metro councilors alike both admit that Google Fiber and others contributed to the text of the proposal being voted on tonight.

However, the one-touch proposal opens up utility poles to basically any new competitor that would come to town; someone could come in and benefit down the line from the legal work Google’s done today. But a proposal that favors incumbents and blocks competition now does so down the line, too.

The incumbents’ dislike for the possibility of Google coming to town is also nothing personal; AT&T and Comcast pretty much always lobby hard against, and write legislation blocking, new competitors.

The metro council will hold its final vote on the one-touch ordinance resolution tonight, Sept. 20. If it passes, it must then go to the mayor’s desk for a signature, after which Nashville will almost certainly face a lawsuit from AT&T.

AT&T and Comcast helped elected official write plan to stall Google Fiber [Ars Technica]

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