Oakland tenants get choice of internet providers under new law

Tenants in Oakland apartment buildings now have more control over their choice of Internet service provider, a choice San Francisco tenants have had since 2016 and a choice the Federal Communications Commission is currently considering.

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

At least 10,000 Oakland tenants will benefit, according to Carlos Michaud of Monkeybrains, a local ISP serving 20,000 Bay Area residents.

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

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

When Berkeley resident John Holland was offered a job editing footage for a Netflix series early in the pandemic, he found the upload speeds and data limits of his building’s ISP were too restrictive. However, he said his landlord refused to allow him to install cable from another service provider, out of concern about possible damage to the building.

“Which would you rather have”, Holland asked, “a building with a little less holes or a building with a 21st century communication infrastructure?”

Unable to meet the technical needs of the project, Holland turned down the job.

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

Nathan “nash” Sheard, organizing director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation that spearheaded the Oakland Ordinance, said some major providers pay landlords for exclusive marketing rights to their complexes and for every tenant who signs up for their service. This, he said, prevents smaller providers from competing and leads tenants to pay higher prices for Internet service.

A Comcast spokesperson Joan Hammel acknowledged that Comcast negotiates exclusive marketing agreements that prohibit other ISPs from advertising their services in the common areas of a building.

“In some cases, there is a revenue sharing arrangement as part of a marketing partnership,” she added. “In some cases there isn’t. It really comes down to the relationship and 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 pointed out: “Landlord exclusivity schemes that keep tenants locked in to just one internet option.

The FCC began banning carriers from signing exclusive contracts with landlords in 2008. But that doesn’t apply to marketing agreements or revenue-sharing incentives for hosts. It also doesn’t require landlords to offer ISP choices. In September, the FCC asked for public input in reviewing those agreements.

The Oakland Ordinance not only gives tenants choices, but also options for redress. Tracy Rosenberg, executive director of Media Alliance, a major developer of the ordinance, said tenants now have the option of taking legal action if their landlord breaks the law by not disclosing it or discouraging other service options.

(Photo by joey.parsons)

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