It is inherently dangerous to a democracy for all of its telecommunications infrastructure to be held in the hands of unelected and unaccountable private actors with no obligation to behave in a nondiscriminatory manner. Municipal networks by their nature answer directly to the local community and their policies are subject to scrutiny and modification by public action, if need be at the ballot box. The preservation of a system of mixed public and private ownership of telecommunications infrastructure is essential to maintaining the free flow of information unfettered by the economic interests of dominant private actors. ,
Community Leaders Testify Against HB 282, Bill Passes Anyway
Community leaders from several Georgia cities made the trek to Atlanta to oppose HB 282 on Thursday, February 28th. Opposition to this bill to limit investment in Internet networks includes community leaders, high tech companies, and citizens all over the state. Nevertheless, legislators on the House Energy, Utilities, and Telecom Committee chose to ignore the needs of communities, prefering to tell them from afar how to run their towns. Winners? Incumbents Windstream, AT&T, CenturyLink, and Comcast.
A substitute bill [PDF] was introduced that exempts communities with municipal electric utilities from the prohibtion to provide telecommunications. Additionally, the bill's definition of "broadband service" is now defined as service equal to or greater than 3.0 Mbps. "in the faster direction." While these look like compromises at first blush, they do very little to change the real world application of the bill.
Our earlier analysis of the bill addressed the fact that the expense and time required to prove locations of unserved areas as defined by the bill, would foreclose the possibility of communities making investments in this essential infrastructure. Likewise, communities that already have networks would be similarly burdened.
While the muni electric exemption is clearly aimed at cities that might oppose the bill, community leaders from some of those target cities strongly spoke out against the revised HB 282. Elberton, Thomasville, and LaGrange, are a few of the communities who sent representatives and all know the power of their community owned networks. Concerned citizens who see the negative impact of this bill also showed up to speak their minds.
Mayors from Elberton and Thomasville testified along with the Elberton and LaGrange City Managers. The Georgia Municipal Association, spearheading the effort against the bill, covered the meeting for their blog.
City leaders expressed dismay over the bill and described how it would affect their own communities and rural Georgia. Here are some highlights:
"Let’s talk about economic development,” said Elberton Mayor Larry Guest. “Georgia should be promoting a pro-business, inclusive approach to broadband deployment, especially in rural areas of the state,” he said. “Competition ensures market-based pricing and faster delivery of state-of-the-art services. We have to do everything we can to attract jobs. If we don’t do that, business will not select rural Georgia. High speed access is essential to us."
When the bills author pressed the fact that the original bill had been amended to exempt cities that provide electric service, Mayor Guest responded:
"Other Georgia cities deserve the right to do what Elberton did, and their residents deserve the services Cumming has,” said Guest. “We are not second class citizens because we decided to live in rural Georgia.”
(The bill's chief author, Republican Rep. Mark Hamilton, represents a district that encompasses Cumming.)
Economic development was a big concern for community leaders:
“The concern that I have is the underserved areas around us,” said Thomasville Mayor Max Beverly. He noted that the bill prohibits cities from investing in, or expanding current broadband services, if any commercial carrier offers 3.0 Mbps where the city wants to offer that service.
“Three megabits is not adequate to do functions in a modern telecommunications world,” Beverly said. Beverly explained that Thomasville is preparing for its customers to use 20 megabits of bandwidth per second. “We are expecting the demand on bandwidth to double in the next five years and this bill does not address that,” he said. “There is going to be bandwidth inflation. Please consider the rest of rural Georgia.”
Residents also showed up to testify, driving home that fact that this issue is not only about business customers. A citizen from Dawsonville also spoke at the meeting:
"I am fighting to get the service I am paying for,” he said, adding that the company took federal stimulus money—$181.3 million according to the company’s 10K filed with the FCC—to invest in their infrastructure but he has not benefitted from any so-called investment.
“I want competition,” he said. “If my city wants to give [the private sector] some competition, I am worried that this bill would prevent my city from doing that.”
Tom Hall, City Manager from LaGrange, summed up the potential power of HB 282:
LaGrange City Manager Tom Hall said the bill has the effect of picking winners and losers, “not only communities but whether businesses will have choices. You are throwing up barriers to communities to not be able to make choices in the best interest of their community and that is not necessarily wise public policy.”
A word about the process: The House Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications subcommittee met on Wednesday to discuss the bill and to listen to this testimony but did not take any action. The next day, Thursday, the subcommittee met again without testifiers and passed the bill. Later that same day, the full committee also met and passed the bill, again without the benefit of testifiers. The bill is now in the House Rules Committee, which will determine whether or not it will be voted on by the House. If the entire House votes on the bill on or before the 30th day of session (a day which has not yet been designated), and it passes, it will be sent to the Senate for consideration.
We continue to monitor this bill and to urge you to contact the Rules Committee (Committe Roster here). Tell them this bill is a bad idea and should not move to the House Floor. Policies like this, designed to take away rights from local communities to provide for their local residents, businesses, and government, are bad for Georgians and bad for the rest of us.