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Oakland renters get choice of internet providers under new law

on February 3, 2022

Renters in Oakland’s apartment buildings now have more control over their choice of internet service provider, a choice that San Francisco renters have had since 2016 and one that the Federal Communications Commission is currently addressing. 

The Internet Choice Ordinance was unanimously approved by the Oakland City Council in October and went into effect for tenants in January. It broadens ISP options for renters in buildings with four or more residences by prohibiting landlords from restricting tenants to a single provider. 

According to Carlos Michaud at Monkeybrains, a locally owned ISP serving 20,000 residents in the Bay Area, at least 10,000 Oakland renters will benefit. 

“The internet is a utility like water and, therefore, should be sold as an affordable, accessible-to-all service,” Michaud said.

While Oakland and San Francisco passed similar ordinances, ISP choice remains a challenge for renters throughout the Bay Area, particularly as many workplaces have gone remote. 

When Berkeley resident John Holland was offered a job opportunity early in the pandemic to edit footage for a Netflix series, he found that his building’s ISP’s upload speeds and data caps were too limiting. However, he said his landlord refused to allow him to install cable from a different service provider, citing concerns over possible damage to the building. 

“Which would you rather have,” asked Holland, “a building with slightly less holes or a building that has a 21st century communications infrastructure?”

Unable to accommodate the technical needs of the project, Holland declined the job.

“Tenants should have an equal right to choose the same established residential internet service that a homeowner could obtain at that address with a simple phone call,” Holland said. 

Nathan “nash” Sheard, organizing director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation which spearheaded the Oakland ordinance, said some major providers pay landlords for exclusive marketing rights to their complexes and for each tenant that signs on to their service. This, he said, bars smaller providers from competing and leads to renters paying higher prices for internet service.

A spokesperson for Comcast, Joan Hammel, acknowledged that Comcast negotiates exclusive marketing agreements in which other ISPs are prohibited from advertising their services in a building’s common areas. 

“In some cases there’s a revenue-sharing arrangement as part of a marketing partnership,” she added. “In some cases, there’s not. It really comes down to the relationship and the negotiation with the building owner.”

The Biden administration has taken steps to end this practice. In a July executive order promoting more competition in the economy, the White House singled out “landlord exclusivity arrangements that stick tenants with only a single internet option.” 

The FCC moved to prohibit providers from signing exclusive contracts with landlords in 2008. But that does not cover marketing agreements or revenue-sharing incentives for landlords. It also does not require landlords to offer ISP choices. In September, the FCC asked for the public’s input in its review of those agreements.  

The Oakland ordinance gives renters not just choices but recourse. Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance, a key developer of the ordinance, said renters now have the ability to take legal action if their landlord is in violation of the law by not disclosing it or by discouraging other service options.

(Photo by joey.parsons)

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