Cable Industry Dumps Dark Money into DC

The Center for Public Integrity released data last year showing some of the ways big cable companies are distorting our republic by funnelling millions into political groups working to further the interests of massive corporations rather than local businesses and citizens.

The head cable lobbying group, the National Cable & Television Association, collects some $60 million in membership dues, and is currently headed by a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Michael K "Revolving Door" Powell makes some $3 million a year.

They spent nearly $20 million lobbying in 2012, employing 89 federal lobbyists of which 78 had worked in government jobs.

This cable cabal donates heavily to groups like Americans for Prosperity while also donating to both sides of the aisle, from the Democratic Attorneys General Association to the Republican Mayors and Local Officials coalition. One has to spread the wealth around to ensure they can continue their cozy relationship and not fear any real competition.

Until we fix the way elections are financed, we cannot hope to match the political might of a few massive monopolies.

Baltimore Mayor: You Can't Grow Jobs with Slow Internet

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sees expanding Internet access as a justice issue and wants to make sure every Baltimore resident benefits from City assets, including fiber optic cables. To that end, the City is examining how it can use its conduit and fiber to improve Internet access.

We have previously covered Baltimore and its consideration of public investments to expand Internet access after both FiOS and Google decided not to invest there.

In the interview below, Mayor Rawlings-Blake expands on why this is important, saying "You can't grow jobs with slow Internet... people don't want to invest in communities where they feel like they are running through sludge, trying to catch up with other businesses," going on to say, "People want to be on the cutting edge."

Kansas Anti-Competition Bill Authored by Cable Lobbyists

We learned a lot today about the anti-competition bill (SB 304) in Kansas to limit Internet network investments. Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin discovered the source of the bill, the Kansas Cable Telecommunications Association:

That's a lobby group with members such as Comcast, Cox, Eagle Communications, and Time Warner Cable. The bill was introduced this week, referred to the Committee on Commerce, and scheduled for discussion for Tuesday of next week.

That hearing will now be delayed as the cable lobbyists strategize on a bill that less transparently serves only their interests. As usual, we see the cable lobbyists claiming that municipal networks use taxpayer dollars, despite the reality that most do not.

Much of what I see in Kansas points to Time Warner Cable being behind this - a lame attempt to stop Google Fiber using lobbying power rather than innovating and investing. However, the bill has tremendously negative implications for rural Kansas because local governments are often the only entities that care if their communities have the Internet access they need in the modern economy.

It stretches credulity to think Kansas would pass a bill that would prevent Google from expanding its network in the region. But we have seen a number of states (ahem, North Carolina) pass cable-authored bills that prevent communities from building fiber optic networks if they have anything faster than dial-up available in even part of town.

The cable lobby would consider it a win if they can still push a bill through that would kill municipal networks while allowing approaches like Google Fiber and Wicked (in Lawrence) to expand.

Fortunately, Google has a history of opposing restraints on local authority to build networks and it is part of a business coalition opposing this bill. As with most Americans, that coalition believes any decision on whether a network is a wise investment should be made locally, not in Topeka or in DC.

Craig Settles' had a Chanute official on the Gigabit Nation audio show to discuss the bill and impact on rural Kansas:


Online Internet Radio at Blog Talk Radio with cjspeaks on BlogTalkRadio

Others writing about this bill and negative impact on Kansas included Karl Bode at Broadband Reports, the Consumerist, Newspoodle, and Daily Kos.

And finally, Chanute created a video about this bill:

Video: 
See video

Businesses Mount Opposition to Anti-Competition Cable Bill in Kansas

In a very quick turnaround, a number of prominent companies have signed on to a letter opposing the Kansas bill to block competition for existing Internet providers, like Time Warner Cable. Firms signing the letter sent to the Commerce Committee include Alcatel-Lucent, American Public Power Association, Atlantic Engineering Group, Calix, CTC Technology & Energy, Fiber to the Home Council, Google, National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, OnTrac, Telecommunications Industry Association, Utilities Telecom Council. The Committee will hear the bill on Tuesday morning. We understand that no recording or live streaming is planned.

Update: When originally posting this, I failed to credit Jim Baller - who organized the letter and works to preserve local authority, so communities themselves can decide whether a network is a wise investment.

We, the private-sector companies and trade associations listed below, urge you to oppose SB 304 because this bill will harm both the public and private sectors, stifle economic growth, prevent the creation or retention of thousands of jobs, hamper work force development, and diminish the quality of life in Kansas. In particular, SB 304 will hurt the private sector in several ways: by curtailing public-private partnerships; by stifling the ability of private companies to sell equipment and services to public broadband providers; and by impairing economic and educational opportunities that contribute to a skilled workforce from which businesses across the state will benefit.

The United States must compete in a global economy in which affordable access to advanced communications networks is playing an increasingly significant role. As the Federal Communications Commission noted in challenging broadband providers and state and municipal community leaders to come together to develop at least one gigabit community in all 50 states by 2015, “The U.S. needs a critical mass of gigabit communities nationwide so that innovators can develop next-generation applications and services that will drive economic growth and global competitiveness.”

The private sector alone cannot enable the United States to take full advantage of the opportunities that advanced communications networks can create in virtually every area of life. As a result, federal and state efforts are taking place across the Nation, including Kansas, to deploy both private and public broadband infrastructure to stimulate and support economic development and job creation, especially in economically distressed areas. SB 304 would prevent municipalities from working with private broadband providers, or developing themselves, if necessary, the advanced broadband infrastructure that will stimulate local businesses development, foster work force retraining, and boost employment in economically underachieving areas.

Consistent with these expressions of national unity, public entities in Kansas and across America are ready, willing, and able to do their share to bring affordable high-capacity broadband connectivity to all Americans. Enactment of barriers to public broadband initiatives, including SB 304, would be counterproductive to the achievement of these goals. SB 304 is also inconsistent with America’s National Broadband Plan, which calls on States to remove existing barriers to community broadband initiatives and to refrain from enacting new ones.

We support strong, fair and open competition to ensure that users can enjoy the widest range of choices and opportunities. SB 304 is a step in the wrong direction. It is bad for Kansas communities, bad for the private sector, particularly high-technology companies, and bad for America’s global competitiveness. Please oppose SB 304 and any amendment or other measure that could significantly impair community broadband deployments or public private partnerships in Kansas.

Early Reactions to Anti-Competition Broadband Bill in Kansas

Following the introduction of SB 304 to limit investment in Internet networks in Kansas, which we covered on Tuesday, we saw some early reactions from those who fear the bill will effectively stop new investment in networks, much to the benefit of the big cable and telephone companies already providing service.

We quickly saw a new Facebook page - Kansans for Broadband Access - and a related website by the same name.

In Chanute, a rural community with an impressive municipal network serving businesses and anchor institutions, the local paper covered overwhelming disapproval.

The city opposes the bill because it’s legislation that allows lawmakers in Topeka to define what local communities can or cannot do.

“It’s about home rule, local choice,” Chanute Utilities Director Larry Gates said. “It’s not about what happens in Topeka.”

And a local business weighed in, noting that the City service is essential because the private providers have refused to upgrade and offer modern services:

Phil Jarred of Jarred Gilmore & Phillips PA said the two private companies providing internet services, CableOne and AT&T cannot meet the needs his business requires.

“Both services are not fast enough,” Jarred said. “It costs us too much not to have the fiber optics.”

Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOm noted that it curiously bans both municipal networks and the types of partnerships that Google and Kansas City formed, finishing with "it looks like incumbent providers are fighting back with politics."

This is nothing new of course - companies have sought for years to protect their businesses with laws limiting the competition rather than investing or being innovative. But when it comes to an essential infrastructure, we should be particularly careful.

Ponca City Fiber: Serving Businesses, Schools, and Offering Free Wi-Fi

Its extensive free Wi-Fi has brought Ponca City into the limelight but the mesh network did not appear overnight. The community effort began with miles of fiber network that provide connectivity and enable the mesh network financially and technically.

Ponca City, home to 25,000, is located on Oklahoma's north central border; Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Wichita are all more than 90 miles away. The petroleum industry flourished in Ponca City until the oil bust in the 1990s and the population began to decline as workers moved away. Community leaders sought ways to salvage the local economy through economic development. They began to focus on the technology, manufacturing, and service industries.

The municipal electric department, Ponca City Energy, installed the first five miles of fiber in 1997 and five more in 1999 to connect outlying municipal buildings to City Hall. Line crews from the utility and the City Technology Services Department handled all installation to keep expenses down. The City continued to add to the network incrementally, exapanding it to over 350 miles. The network also serves the City's SCADA system.

In 2003, Ponca City Energy connected the local schools, and the Ponca City Medical Center to the network. The network also began providing Internet to the University Learning Center of Northern Oklahoma, now named the University Center at Ponca City. The Center collaborates with thirteen higher education institutions to provide distance learning in 48 online degree programs.

Ponca City eventually began offering Internet access via the fiber to commercial customers. According to Craige Baird, Technology Services Director, most businesses in the community purchase Internet access from the City. Revenue from commercial Internet customers, approximately $36,000 per month, pays for the wireless mesh network.

In 2008, Ponca City installed the wireless network for the City's public safety entities. The wireless complement allowed employees in the field to immediately transfer information that in the past required a drive back to the office. In addition to police and fire, employees such as electrical linemen, ambulance attendents, and code enforcement officers use the network. The City connected 25 percent of its 500 wireless routers to the fiber optic network, creating a robust mesh with ample bandwidth over 150 square miles. The City chose to use the excess bandwidth to provide free Wi-Fi to the public.

Wi-Fi logo

City officials estimate the network saves residents almost $4 million a year in Internet fees. Over 17,000 people use the free service, allowing them to keep more dollars in the local economy. The Wi-fi speeds range from 7 - 12 Mbps download. The network will support the community's upcoming technology plan to supply laptops and tablets for students. 

The City has also implemented a virtual desktop solution, allowing city employees to access their desktop from any Internet connection. To insure redundancy, the City has mutual fiber lines between its server rooms and its Disaster Recovery site, located miles away. The City received a 2013 Municipal Innovations Award from the Oklahoma Municipal League for its infrastructure and disaster recovery. From the Oklahoma Municipal League announcement:

Overall, Ponca City has started the technology move over twelve years ago with the first installation of fiber optic cable. But now that basic installation has grown to provide the backbone for an entire network that provides services not only to the employees but to the citizens and businesses in Ponca City. Technology will continue to be an important part of Ponca City’s future.

Kansas Legislature Introduces Bill to Limit Internet Investment

Get updates to this story here.

With Senate Bill No. 304 [pdf], the Kansas Legislature will consider a bill to revoke local authority to build networks. If passed, this bill would create some of the most draconian limits on building networks we have seen in any state.

The language in this bill prohibits not only networks that directly offer services but even public-private partnerships and open access approaches. This is the kind of language one would expect to see if the goal is to protect politically powerful cable and telephone company monopolies rather than just limiting local authority to deliver services.

The bill states that the goal is to

encourage the development and widespread use of technological advances in providing video, telecommunications and broadband services at competitive rates; and ensure that video, telecommunications and broadband services are each provided within a consistent, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory federal, state and local government framework.

Yet the bill does nothing but discourage investment, with no explanation of how prohibiting some approaches will lead to more investment or better services. It does not enable any new business models, rather it outlaws one possible source of competition for existing providers.

The bill contains what will appear to the untrained eye to be an exemption for unserved areas. However, the language is hollow and will have no effect in protecting those who have no access from the impact of this bill.

The first problem is the definition of unserved. A proper definition of unserved would involve whether the identified area has access to a connection meeting the FCC's minimum broadband definition delivered by DSL, cable, fiber-optic, fixed wireless or the like. These technologies are all capable of delivering such access.

However the bill also includes mobile wireless and, incredibly, satellite access. As we have noted on many occasions, the technical limits of satellite technology render it unfit to be called broadband, even if it can deliver a specific amount of Mbps. Satellite just does not allow the rapid two-way transmitting of information common to modern Internet applications. Mobile wireless comes with high costs, prohibitively low monthly caps, and often only works in some areas of a rural property. This is not a proper measure of having access to the Internet.

The second problem with the fake unserved exemption is the challenge of demonstrating an area meets it. If one suspected that a territory with over 90% of the residents did not meet the overly broad definition, one would have to engage in an expensive survey to prove it at the census block level. Data is not ordinarilly collected at that granular level - and even when it is, it is often based on unverified claims by existing carriers.

Even if anywhere in Kansas qualified as unserved under this definition, the cost of proving it would only add to the extremely high cost of building to such a low density population, breaking any business plan that could attempt it.

This is not the absolute most restrictive bill we have seen revoking local authority to build networks, but it is second. It does allow communities to build networks for public purposes, including schools, which is the differentiator in this case.

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These types of bills make a mockery of our political system. Whether to invest in essential infrastructure (or how to) is a decision that should be made at the local level, where people know how their unique mix of assets and challenges relate to ensuring everyone has fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. There is no need for the state or federal authority to overrule local decision-making. The only reason we see it popping up in state after state (most recently Georgia) is because powerful cable and telephone companies want to ensure they face no competition - even in the most rural areas of the country.

This is not a matter of taxes. As we note in a recent fact sheet, most community networks have not used taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, the cable and telephone companies have a history of benefits from the public sector, from ongoing subsidies to having built their networks originally as monopolies protected from competition.

For those new to this issue, I highly recommend our fact sheets on community networks, videos, and our interactive map of community networks.

We have covered many stories in Kansas over the years, including the network in Chanute that has helped many local businesses (see our case study) and a more recent investment by the city of Ottawa.

We will provide ongoing coverage as this bill moves forward.

The Real Threats from Monopoly - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #83

When we think about the threat of monopoly, we almost always focus on how monopolies can raise prices beyond what is reasonable. But there are many threats from monopolies and many are much more dangerous to a free society than higher prices. This week, monopoly expert Barry Lynn joins us for the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Lynn is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of a book that I recommend very highly - Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. Buy it a local bookstore or from an independent bookstore online.

We discuss whether companies like Comcast are correctly termed "monopoly" when they face some nominal competition and what the threat from monopoly is. Barry explains how both political parties have encouraged centralization even as both parties have had vocal opponents of such policies. And finally, we discuss how policies dealing with monopoly now are fundamentally different than they were for the vast majority of American history.

This is a great discussion - one of the most important we have done.

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 Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Policy Brief: Building Community Broadband Access

In partnership with the Center for Popular Democracy, we have created a new policy brief: Building Community Broadband Access. We offer examples of communities that have acted to improve access by using smart strategies that facilitate community owned networks.

This fact sheet provides information to legislators, advocates, or concerned citizens who want to educate others about the benefits of publicly owned networks. This is the latest in our growing collection of convenient, compact, and instructive fact sheets. 

The Center for Popular Democracy works with a long list of local, state, and national groups to exercise grass-roots democracy. 

Download the Policy Brief [PDF].

Minnesota Broadband Conference February 4 - 5

Mark your calendar to attend Boarder to Boarder Broadband: A Call to Action on February 4 - 5 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The event is sponsored by the Blandin Foundation and a long list of organizations concerned with connectivity, economic development, and education ni Minnesota.

ILSR's Chris Mitchell will be presenting on February 5 as part of 9:15 CST Breakout Session, Broadband Infrastructure Development. Other Breakout Sessions are Digital Inclusion, Business and Economic Development, and Applications. A detailed agenda and speakers list is available [PDF].

A description of the conference from the registration page:

The time is ripe for Minnesota legislators and residents to have a “So what? Now What?” conversation about our shared aspirations for Border to Border Broadband:

  • The Governor’s Broadband Task Force is issuing their 2013 report and recommendations soon.
  • The director of the Office of Broadband Development will be in place in January 2014
  • Minnesota state legislators have been touring rural areas to hear directly from Minnesotans about their technology needs and dreams.

Conversations have been happening but…What does it all add up to?

The event will be at the RiverCenter in downtown St. Paul. Attendee tickets are $120 ($60 per day) and Exhibitors pay $300 or $60 if your organization is a nonprofit. You can secure your ticket by registering online. See you there!