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How to support small businesses? Let them fix your stuff. | COMMENTARY

If you’ve ever brought an old device to a Best Buy or Apple store, you might have been told that it cannot be fixed. If your charging port is broken, data is lost, or you need anything other than a screen, battery, speaker or camera replacement, you’ll likely be encouraged to buy a new device. Luckily independent repair providers can help, but tech companies are making it harder and harder for small fix-it businesses to survive.

Makers of electronics benefit when you buy new stuff, so they take measures to limit what you can and can’t fix. Most electronics manufacturers restrict access to critical parts, tools, manuals and schematics from both you and independent repair technicians. Bills in the Maryland House and Senate would lift these barriers. This “Right to Repair” legislation would make it easier for you to repair your devices or take them to a shop that can.

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One of those shops is Down the Street IT in Sykesville. Owners Alex and Melissa Turski are really good at what they do. Alex does repairs that require specialized skills, including micro-soldering — replacing parts so small on a circuit board that he uses a microscope to see them. Using these advanced techniques, Alex can retrieve data his customers thought was lost for good, bringing back often sacred memories. After manufacturers try to convince them that certain repairs are impossible, his customers are amazed at what Alex can do and the money they can save. “Thank God I don’t have to go to Best Buy,” he’s heard them say.

While his customers may celebrate him, Alex’s much larger “competitors” do not. They put up barriers to his business, such as restricting access to critical information he needs to do his job. This interference poses unique challenges for a small business in a small community, such as Down the Street IT. An important aspect of Alex’s work is diagnosing problems on motherboards, which control the main functions of any device. If a customer comes in to Alex with a problem, Alex knows that it could be a small capacitor that costs as little as 5 cents — but which one? To figure this out, Alex needs a schematic. For the technologically disinclined, a schematic is a diagram which tells Alex what each part does so that he can properly diagnose a problem. Not too many years ago, you could easily get these from many of the companies that built your stuff. But now, few manufacturers make them readily available.

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“It can take hours searching through the internet to find a schematic,” said Alex. “Then when I do find one, sometimes I don’t know if it’s legitimate or not. Or, it will ask me to pay for it before I even know what it is.” Alex ends up spending a lot of money and time for third party schematics until he finds one legitimate enough to help him repair his customer’s devices. If he doesn’t find help online, he has to turn the customer away. His business would run a lot smoother if manufacturers made schematics available from the start at a reasonable price.

Alex, like other repair shop owners, respects that brands like Apple want to make money but he doesn’t understand why he should bear the brunt of what some have described as anti-competitive practices. Independent repair shops like Down the Street IT — worth a tiny fraction of the tech giants — don’t want the super-secret formula to, for example, Apple products. They just want to fix them — offering many repairs those larger companies don’t. “[Manufacturers] want to hide what they have,” said Alex. “I kind of understand it. It’s good for their business. But if I own the device, I should be able to repair it appropriately.”

Right to Repair would give Alex and Melissa a fighting chance to grow their small business and hire more technicians — all while providing their community with top-notch repairs. As much as their customers love the work they do, Down the Street IT and businesses like it will have a hard time surviving if their employees have to waste time and money searching for — and sometimes not finding — tools and information that should be available in the first place. It’s unfair to small businesses, and it’s unfair to consumers seeking better and cheaper options in what should be a competitive market.

Emily Scarr and Anne Marie Green are with the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit organization.

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