Revisiting the Blackburn Amendment Debates

REMINDER - Today is the last day to file comments in the opening round of the FCC petitions of Wilson and Chattanooga. Information on how to file here.

Last month, we covered the progress of U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn’s amendment to strip the FCC of its authority to restore local decision-making as its budget wormed its way through committee and into a larger appropriations bill. Her quest to keep state bans and restrictions on community networks in place (including in her home state of Tennessee, where Chattanooga EPB has filed a petition to start serving neighbors in need) is impressive for its boldness, if not its logical consistency. Impervious to many observers and commenters who noted her extensive financial support from incumbent telcos, she succeeded in passing the amendment on the House floor by a vote of 223-200.

The points raised by Representative Blackburn on the House floor in support of her amendment deserve some attention, as does the rebuttal offered by Representative Jose Serrano of New York’s 15 district, who rose against the amendment and in defense of the right of local communities to decide for themselves how to meet their broadband needs. Few of Blackburn’s arguments will surprise regular observers of the telco incumbent playbook, but there are some highlights that deserve special focus.

Rep. Blackburn based nearly her entire argument against FCC preemption on the idea that states are closer to the people than Washington, and that the FCC shouldn’t tell the local folks what to do:

“[Chairman Wheeler] wrongly assumes that Washington knows best, and forgets that the right answer doesn’t always come from the top down.”

“...Twenty states across this country have held public debates and enacted laws that limit municipal broadband to varying degrees. These state legislatures and governors have not only listened but have responded to the voices of their constituents. They are closer to the people than the Chairman of the FCC.  They are accountable to their voters.”

“...State governments across the country understand, and are more attentive to the needs of the American people than unelected federal bureaucrats in Washington.”

We could not agree more, Rep. Blackburn: the right answer does not always come from the top down. Which is exactly why state legislators and incumbent lobbyists should get out of the way and allow local communities to find their own answer for affordable broadband access. In his time on the floor, Rep. Serrano raised this point as well:

"Whatever happened to localism or local control? This amendment means the Federal Government will tell every local citizen, mayor, and county council member that they may not act in their own best interests. 

[Blackburn’s] amendment is an attack on the rights of individual citizens speaking through their local leader to determine if their broadband needs are being met."

Representative Blackburn also raised the specter of the “failed” UTOPIA network, and charged that the FCC would somehow force all states to do something similar:

“For example, look at the failed UTOPIA project, that has created massive disruption and is challenging taxpayers… That doesn't sound like a model the federal government needs to force against the wishes of state elected officials” 

No one is “forcing” any kind of municipal broadband model on any community; under preemption each community would simply be free to choose for itself. The unfortunate state legislators who may potentially see the federal government go “against their wishes” are in fact forcing a cable and telecom monopoly model on local communities. 

Rep. Serrano noted the example of Chattanooga EPB, where gigabit connections can be had by anyone for $70 per month from the municipal utility and potential customers are clamoring for service but are blocked by state law. He also rooted out the red herring of “forcing” a given model on anyone: 

“Preemption will not force anyone to do anything that the municipalities alone don’t want to do. This is not about forcing states to do anything, but instead stopping states from choking grassroots competition and stopping states from blocking faster networks or new networks where none exist.

“Broadband is something that we need to expand... It should be available everywhere, and it should be available in every possible place - rural, suburban, inner city, in homes, in schools. 

We have to build the infrastructure to make that happen.” 

Rep. Serrano also submitted several letters into the Congressional Record in support of FCC preemption, including those submittted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.

As important as it is to name and shame the politicians (such as Rep. Blackburn) who act on behalf of their corporate sponsors to undermine local communities, it is equally important to give credit where it is due. In this case, a pat on the back is due to Rep. Serrano, who took time on the House floor to point out some of the more ludicrous straw man arguments used by the anti-community network crowd. 

The full Congressional record of their exchange can be seen here (the relevant debate starts on page 6280). Youtube also has an edited video of Rep. Blackburn’s full floor statements from her own channel, where Rep. Serrano’s well-reasoned rebuttal is conspicuously absent.

Fiber Infrastructure Helping Turn San Leandro into Tech Hub

San Leandro, a Bay Area city of about 85,000 bordering Oakland, is in the news for its fiber optic infrastructure policies. A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News describes how this post-industrial city is turning itself into a center for tech jobs and investment through cheap rents, streamlined permitting, and the ease and low cost of fiber connectivity for businesses in some areas of town. 

We featured San Leandro in an episode of our Broadband Bits podcast last year, when Christopher spoke with San Leandro Chief Innovation Officer Deborah Acosta and a Lit San Leandro consultant Judi Clark. Acosta and Clark gave the details on San Leandro’s innovative public-private partnership, which combines smart public investments in conduits and “dig once” concepts with private investment in the actual fiber optic strands themselves. The city has been able to access fiber for it’s own needs at minimal cost, while some businesses have access to up to 10Gbps connectivity, either through privately provided lit fiber or leasing their own dark fiber. 

As the Mercury News article notes, the fiber assets have begun to pay off. Several technology parks have taken up residence in the area, including a hub of 3-D printing companies, sharing space and ideas while taking advantage of incredible data transfer speeds. One entrepreneur quoted in the article describes the office park, located in a former car factory, as “the world's largest cluster of 3-D desktop printer companies.”

The article also notes the growing awareness of San Leandro’s economic comeback, and the role played by fiber optic infrastructure: 

"San Leandro is establishing itself as a city-scale lab for innovation. Only months ago, (it) was a relatively unknown Bay Area city," said Greg Delaune, CEO of UIX Global.

Lit San Leandro, the private company that worked with the city to do the initial fiber runs, is apparently also in talks with other Bay Area cities on potential similar projects. However, it is worth noting that there is no plan for connecting residents and this model may in fact make it more difficult to expand residental gigabit access.

The business case for residential access is always hard but is improved when high margin businesses can be connected at the same time. But when high margin businesses have their needs met first, there is little incentive for a profit-maximizing firm to invest in connecting lower margin customers, a phenomenon called cream-skimming in economics. 

Communities should understand there is no magic bullet in solving the problem of expanding high quality Internet access. Lit San Leandro is seeing success but may not be the best model for all communities.

Missoula Pursues Open Access Fiber for Jobs - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 112

After having met City Councilmember Caitlin Copple at last year's Broadband Communities event in Austin and seeing the progress Missoula, Montana, has made in considering a municipal fiber network, I knew we should ask her to be on the show. This week, she joins me and Karen Palmer, the Director of Operations for a local tech company in Missoula, LMG, for episode 112 of Community Broadband Bits.

After surveying local businesses, Missoula found a strong need for better services and is examining its options for an open access fiber network. They are fortunate to have already identified some service providers that want to work with them on the project.

Additionally, the network would be a boon for community anchor institutions, from schools to hospitals, and facilities owned by either the County or City.

Read a transcript of this show, episode 112, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 17 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Chris Mitchell In Burlington, Vermont on September 19th

Members of the Burlington community are hosting a luncheon on Friday, September 19th, to discuss ways to help keep BT local. Chris, as one of the leading experts on municipal broadband, will be leading the discussion. We have followed BurlingtonTelecom's challenges and victories since 2008.

The event is titled "How Do We Keep Burlington Telecom Local?" and will be at the CCTV Center for Media & Democracy in Burlington. From the announcement:

Many Burlington residents and activists are concerned about the City of Burlington’s plans to sell Burlington Telecom to a private entity by 2017. While the City is committed to BT as a driver for economic and community development, it currently has no specific plans to retain a meaningful ownership stake in the new entity. 

The event is part of a series of community talks aimed at maintaining public input as the City prepares to move forward. 

A free discussion will begin at 11 a.m.; it will be followed by lunch for $15. You can now register online. For those who want to learn more about the network and keep up on the latest developments, CCTV of Vermont has put together a resource page detailing upcoming steps with news coverage, video, and court documents. 

Media Roundup: Broadband Around the Nation - Week of August 15, 2014

This week in Community Broadband coverage, Eldo Telecom is helping debunk some fiber fallacies. Blogger Fred Pilot responds to a typical Comcast claim that government should not compete with private sector telecommunications providers, saying the argument is economically false:

"When the public sector steps in to build and/or finance telecommunications infrastructure, it does so because this market environment combined with the previously mentioned business model limitations of investor-owned telephone and cable companies produces market failure on the sell side. That failure has left millions of Americans unable to order modern Internet landline-delivered services at their homes and small businesses."

And, as the debate heats up about whether cities can restore local authority to build networks, cities, towns and counties around the nation took action to expand or develop community broadband networks. 

Many media outlets, including Syracuse.com reported Mayor Stephanie Miner's frustration with a lack of broadband options. Miner announced this week that a publicly owned network may be in the city's future. Though many questions are ahead for Syracuse, including how it would be run and who would pay for it, the mayor agreed that high speed internet should be a public service: 

"Almost as important as trash pick-up and water... [it is] the modern day equivalent of infrastructure... It's clear that broadband is going to be a foundation of our new economy."

And, if Kanabec County, Minnesota officials have their way, they could expand broadband in unserved areas with a partnership and revenue bonds. The Kanabec Broadband Initiative asked county officials this week to consider selling revenue bonds to expand its high speed Internet. Marc Johnson, chair of the Kanabec Broadband Initiative:

"The effort would be similar to how rural electric and rural telephone initiatives got started. Bonds would be repaid over time from broadband sales in much the same way as the county has backed revenue bonds for the FirstLight Health System, which are repaid from hospital and clinic revenues.

Rockport, Maine

Rockport, Maine is on its way to helping the state shrug off its dismal ranking of 49th in the nation for Internet access and quality. Maine Public Broadcasting and other news organizations report that Rockport, Maine joined the growing list of Gig Cities to light up its fiber for the city. A local ISP - Great Works Internet or GWI - was excited about the launch. The Portland Press-Herald also editorialized its support for municipal broadband.

Senator Angus King was on hand for the official launch of the network:

"Cable TV is something you can take or leave. You can watch it or not. Internet service, to me, is a different animal. It's something you can't live without," King said. "And to me that's what justifies giving it a different kind of treatment."

And finally, Cleveland's got Lebron back, they will soon have Kevin Love, and maybe-- just maybe, it will also have access to some of the fastest Internet speeds in the nation?

Kyle Wiggers of the CleveScene wrote this commentary favoring munis. He writes about the need for speed in Northeast Ohio: 

“If health care improves in part because of fiber, how long are we going to wait? If a school can begin to leverage next-generation internet in interesting ways, how long are we going to wait? The future is around leveraging fiber optics for the things that really matter: education, health, and economics.”

The Birth of Community Broadband - Video

ILSR is excited to announce a new short video examining an impressive municipal broadband network, Glasgow Kentucky. Glasgow was the first municipal broadband network and indeed, seems to have been the first citywide broadband system in the United States.

We partnered with the Media Working Group to produce this short documentary and we have the material to do much more, thanks to the hard work of Fred Johnson at MWG and the cooperation of many in Glasgow, particularly Billy Ray.

People who only recently became aware of the idea of community owned networks may not be familiar with Billy Ray, but it was he and Jim Baller throughout the 90's and early 2000's that paved the way for all the investment and excitement we see today. 

I'm excited to be helping to tell part of this story and look forward to being able to tell more of it.

Video: 

Denver Post Editorial Takes Aim at Colorado Law Limiting Investment

SB 152, the telecom incumbent-supported Colorado law that restricts municipalities from building broadband networks or even partnering with other entities to do the same, is increasingly coming under fire. The City of Longmont passed a referendum to restore its local authority in 2011 and has started construction on a project that will make it Colorado's first gig city.

Centennial and Montrose voters have chosen to restore their authority as well. Boulder plans to put a similar measure to the test in elections this fall. So far, every community in Colorado that has put restoring local authority on the ballot has gotten it done - despite heavy incumbent spending and astroturf activism.

Now, an editorial in the Denver Post has called even more attention to the issue of SB 152 and the anti-competitive, undemocratic environment it has created in the State of Colorado: 

The statute created by SB 152 needs to go away. While civic and business leaders tout ambitious projects to connect the state with the rest of the world, Colorado is falling behind because of artificial constraints to broadband expansion.

Longmont pioneers saw past all of that and pushed through, even in the face of well-financed opposition. A few other communities are starting to see the advantage of bucking SB 152.

Longmont's Roiniotis says the question he hears almost constantly is, "When am I going to get my gig?"

It is a question the entire state should ask.

We couldn't have said it better ourselves. 

Hamilton, Ohio Connects Local Schools with City Fiber

Just over a year ago, we wrote about Hamilton’s plans to expand their extensive fiber optic infrastructure to offer services to schools and businesses in the area. Last month, the first example of such expanded services came online, with three area schools getting fiber optic internet connections through a partnership between the City utility and the Southwest Ohio Computer Association Council of Governments (SWOCA-COG). 

The press release announcing the collaboration describes SWOCA as: 

“...a council of governments consisting of 33 public school districts plus several private and charter schools in the area. The organization provides numerous software and technical services to schools, libraries, and municipalities as well as very high capacity Broadband Internet.” 

Under the arrangement, the City will be responsible for the physical connections and laid fiber, while SWOCA will provide the active internet service. This approach fits the city’s stated goal of remaining a source of neutral infrastructure:

“The City will remain carrier-neutral and does not intend to compete with providers or offer end user services directly. Instead, Hamilton’s goal is to make an additional source of last-mile fiber available to service providers at competitive rates to expand the availability of business-class broadband services in our community. As such, service providers will have equal access to all facilities, transport, and other services on Hamilton’s network.”

With the growth of online testing, electronic textbooks, and other online media in the classroom, existing connections were proving inadequate. The schools will pay the City $18,000 per year for connectivity, decreasing their costs while increasing bandwidth. From the press release:

“‘Schools in the region are getting more technology focused. Regionally, we've seen school bandwidth needs grow as much as 60% in a year. The City is in a great position to help us meet this demand,’ said Marc Hopkins, Network Services Manager for SWOCA.”

Hamilton has had a fiber optic network for internal government use since 2004, and in 2012 began contemplating ways to leverage this existing asset to spur economic development and expand educational opportunities. The City did a feasibility study on network expansion, and in July of 2013 authorized a city team to find partners to work with.  

Mark Murray, the project manager for Hamilton’s broadband initiative, made clear the City’s intention to expand further: "We see this as just the first step to bigger things to come with broadband in Hamilton," Murray said.

FCC Releases Notice of Inquiry on Broadband Progress

Section 702 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act requires the FCC to report annually on whether "advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion." The FCC kicked off its tenth such report on Tuesday by releasing a "Notice of Inquiry," (NOI) in effect asking individuals and groups around the country to offer relevant data and comments. 

This process amounts to a kind of crowdsourced "State of the Union" on broadband issues. In addition to determining how many people in what areas have broadband access, this NOI also asks the critical question of how exactly the FCC should define broadband. The current definition of 4mbps download capacity and 1mbps upload may have been sufficient in the past, but isn't adequate for even recreational household use by many Americans today, let alone the demands of running a business and conducting commerce online.

This NOI also asks some arcane but important questions about other aspects of broadband definitions, including latency (the speed of data moving within a network, a different measure than bandwidth) and the widespread use of data caps and other policies in the telecom industry. 

Obviously the answers to all these questions have significant implications for municipal networks. Inadequate or overly-loose definitions of broadband allow incumbents to claim that they are providing excellent service to just about everyone in a given area, when that is often far from the truth. Many restrictive state laws limiting municipal networks, as well as federal grant programs that may support such networks, are based on whether an area is defined as already served or underserved, which may be dependent on FCC benchmarks. As is often the case in regulatory issues, the devil is in the details.  

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler introduced the NOI with the following statement:

Congress has instructed us that all Americans should have access to robust broadband services, no matter where they live. Because consumers demand increasing levels of bandwidth capacity to support the applications they want to use online, we are asking if it is time to update the benchmark broadband speed. And as more people adopt faster broadband speeds, we are asking if all consumers, even in the most rural regions, should have greater access to better broadband. 

We here at ILSR believe the answer to both questions is a resounding "YES." The due date for initial comments is September 4th, and ILSR intends to make its voice heard.

Muni Fiber as Real Estate - Community Broadband Bits Episode 111

Hunter Newby is back for his second appearance on Community Broadband Bits to discuss his thoughts on carrier neutral approaches to spur our economy with more investment in better networks. We just talked with Hunter in episode 104 on carrier neutral approaches to middle mile networks.

Now we discuss these types of approaches within communities - how to spur more competition without the owner of the infrastructure actually offering services directly. This has been a challenge historically, but we continue to see signs that this approach can be viable in the future.

Hunter Newby is the CEO and founder of Allied Fiber.

Read the transcript for episode 111 here, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."