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Bernie Sanders Threatens to Break Up Broadband Market With 'High-Speed Internet for All' Plan

Vermont Senator and US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders pledged to put a stop to the "greed" of telcos and cable operators with a wide-ranging "High-Speed Internet for All" plan backed by billions in grants designed to expand access to broadband services and reduced pricing.

Sanders, who pledged to accomplish this by the end of his first term as president, wants to take that big step further by using "existing antitrust authority to break up internet service provider and cable monopolies."

Sanders would also put forth a plan to classify broadband ISPs as common carriers under "Title II" and reinstate network neutrality regulations that were recently rolled back at the FCC under the Trump administration. He'd also attempt to have Congress codify those rules into law to prevent more see-sawing of the FCC rules. In another jab at the FCC, Sanders would also seek to conduct a "national broadband census" that creates a more comprehensive and accurate assessment of broadband access maps, speeds and prices.

Sanders's plan also aims to bar service providers from providing content and moves to "unwind anticompetitve vertical conglomerates," an obvious threat to the combos of Comcast/NBCU and AT&T/WarnerMedia.

Calling Internet access a critical service that "must be treated as the new electricity," Sanders said his plan, if he's elected president, will provide access to broadband to the entire US using a "necessary, resilient, modern infrastructure" backed by $150 billion in "Green New Deal" infrastructure grants. That would also include technical help for municipalities and individual states to erect "publicly owned and democratically controlled, co-operative, or open access broadband networks."

Sanders's plan also calls for a reform of the Universal Service Fund and a dedicated "accelerated last mile fund" through the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utility Service to provide capital funding to connect all remote, rural homes and businesses and to upgrade outdated tech infrastructure. The plan also sets aside $7.5 billion to expand high-speed broadband "Indian Country," to restore the FCC's Office of Native Affairs and Policy. The plan also envisions free broadband service to public housing.

Sanders also wants to raise FCC's definition of broadband, which is currently 25Mbit/s down and 3Mbit/s -- he wants it to be 100Mbit/s down and 10Mbit/s up.

Much of Sanders's ire is directed at incumbent telcos and cable operators, holding that monopolistic positions in the market result in high prices that put broadband out of reach for some in rural and urban areas.

"Internet, telecom, and cable monopolies exploit their dominant market power to gouge consumers and lobby government at all levels to keep out competition," Sanders said, calling out AT&T, Comcast and Verizon by name. "It's time to take this critical 21st century utility out of the hands of monopolies and conglomerates and bring it to the people while creating good-paying, union jobs at the same time."

Why this matters
Sanders still needs to win the White House for this plan to have any teeth, but it does put the nation's cable operators and telcos on notice that they'll have a regulatory war on their hands should Sanders manage to win the 2020 election.

Sanders's plan would plunge a blade into the heart of today's cable business while also seeking to cast heavier-handed network neutrality into cement. While pay-TV has become less important in this era of cord-cutting, providing high-margin broadband service is now the centerpiece of the industry, underpinning practically every aspect of the business.

As for the cable industry, they are keeping their reactions and opinions about this close to the vest at the moment -- cable operators and cable industry organizations contacted Friday afternoon either declined comment or said they still needed more time to review Sanders's plan before providing comment. But it's fair to say that they likely are not jumping for joy about it as they head into the weekend.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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