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Community Broadband Media Roundup - November 30, 2014

This week in community broadband, more communities are adding broadband to the list of essential utilities, and many of them are turning to Chattanooga as a model “gig city.”

As Times Free Press’s Dave Flessner reports, the great thing about Chattanooga's approach is that it’s not just about Internet. In fact, the broadband boom is really an unintended benefit of the city’s cutting edge smart grid, which keeps the city’s lights on and powers the economy as well. 

"What we're going to try to do is bring some of the brilliant people from Warner Bros., Fox, Disney and IBM down here to Chattanooga to help them get their heads wrapped around this notion that you've got to stop worrying about scarcity," [Annenberg Innovation Lab director Jonathan] Taplan said.

Last year, T-Bone Burnett, a Grammy Award winner, performed "The Wild Side of Life" from a Los Angeles studio with Chuck Mead, a founder of the band BR549 who was on stage in Chattanooga.

"They sang a song together over 2,000 miles apart," Taplin said. "That's the power of gigabit Internet. I think we're just beginning to think of the possibilities of what this thing can do."

And Android Authority’s William Neilson Jr. explores the desire for faster connections and more choices.

“Isn’t it amazing how much faster broadband speeds are in parts of the country where there are a number of broadband options available to residents? How many times am I going to write an article detailing a broadband provider telling a city that they don’t need “fast” speeds even though the city is universally angry at their lack of broadband options?”

Of course, we see the product of how increased competition brings better service even more clearly in communities that have municipal networks, not just in Google's Kansas City network. It is an outcome that all communities can achieve if they regain the authority to do so. 

In the beginning, Lafayette, Louisiana created its own utility system. And it was good. Steve Stackhouse Kaelble goes back to the very beginning of municipalization of utilities in his research on public power this week:

Lafayette is just one community, but it provides a great illustration of the forward-thinking mindset that led many American municipalities into the utility business. In some cases, local leaders got a glimpse of the future and worked to bring it to their communities ahead of the curve. In other cases, they found that the profit-driven business model that works so well in much of the American economy had left them behind when it comes to certain kinds of services.

The fruits of these local efforts are America’s public power communities — places where local governments and other public entities have taken charge to deliver services their communities need to prosper.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner is making her list and hoping for smarter sensors this Christmas. On Miner’s wish list: municipal broadband, and other essential smart grid infrastructure projects. The mayor requested close to a billion dollars in grant money from Gov. Cuomo for economic development in greater New York. It’s unclear if Syracuse is high enough on Cuomo’s list: 

Reality check: … [Miner is] well aware it's not terribly compelling to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on stuff you can't see. It's an "eat-your-peas'' approach that aligns with Miner's view of the role of government, versus the "shiny toys'' approach favored by Cuomo and the Buffalo Billion… Whether by accident or design, the mayor's plan leaves us wanting more. Think of it as an opening bid. Who's willing to push her vision farther?

And while all of these cities are moving forward with community broadband efforts of some kind, Jason Meyers with Light Reading spoke with the city’s Chief Technology Officer, Mike Mattmiller and noted that despite Seattle’s reputation as a tech leader, it is lagging in the gigabit connecitivity. Mattmiller suggests that a public-private partnership is still desired, depending on how a new study turns out.

Bozeman, Montana residents are urging leaders to help drive down prices and improve Internet speeds this week. Kenneth Silvestri voiced his opinion in the Bozeman Chronicle.

We could continue to be beholden to the monopoly imposed by the telecommunications companies, or we can invest in our future by laying the groundwork for a technology infrastructure that serves the community and expands access.

Sahara Devi seconded that sentiment in Bozeman, and we hope you will do the same in your own communities. When lawmakers on both sides of the isle hear your views on competition, local authority, and economic development, it is hard to back down from taking steps to increase local choices and better connectivity. 

Wi-fi

New York City and Seattle are both looking into wi-fi neighborhoods, with varying success. Last week a Seattle councilwoman announced her backing of Wi-Fi in tent cities, which would help serve the city’s homeless population. This week, T.C. Scottek with The Verge dug in to NYC’s effort to connect parts of the city with Wi-Fi.

One of the biggest problems is that LinkNYC will be funded by advertising, and as the Daily News correctly points out, the poorest neighborhoods in the city aren't worth as much to advertisers as tourist-packed Times Square. That's a reality that makes sense for profit-seeking businesses to build around, but not so much for public-facing utilities that ought to provide reasonably equal levels of service to everyone.

And “Mat Catastrophe” with Charleston City Paper lamented his city’s decision to let Comcast supply the bandwidth for the city’s new Wi-Fi-in-the-parks initiative. It seems Catastrophe is concerned that Comcast may not have the city’s residents real Internet interests at heart. 

… if you're hanging out in one of Charleston's lovely parks and you have a burning desire to do whatever it is you want with a free internet connection, by all means do so. But just don't believe for one second that it really makes the city more livable for any more than a small fraction of Holy City residents. And never forget that it's just another way that public money is siphoned into private hands.

If you want the City of Charleston to really make a name for itself, then you should support the idea of repealing the state law against municipal broadband providers and advocate for whichever mayoral and city council candidates are willing to take up that fight and move Charleston in the right direction in the 21st Century.

Corporate Monopolies and Mergers

Verizon claims it would *not* to sue the FCC to block net neutrality rules. But only if the commission promises it will not reclassify broadband providers as utilities. More and more citizens are making the connection between corporate monopolies and our poor broadband choices. Activists rallied in Brooklyn this week. Jay Cassano reported about the social justice argument for Waging Non-Violence.

Most concretely, the merger could result in higher prices for broadband Internet service, which would hit those who are economically disadvantaged the hardest.

'The merger could really negatively affect people who already have trouble accessing the Internet right now,” said Kevin Huang, campaign manager at Fight for the Future. 'When it comes to cable and Internet, the cost of service is crucial. It’s incredibly important for marginalized communities to participate in the 21st century ecology, but the prices for reliable Internet services have been going up.'”

Estes Park, Colorado, to Ask Voters to Reclaim Authority in February

The recent Colorado elections in Boulder, San Miguel County, Yuma County, Rio Blanco County, Wray, Yuma, Red Cliff, and Cherry Hills Village have inspired Estes Park. According to a recent Trail Gazette article, the northern town will hold a special election in February to ask voters to reclaim telecommunications authority. Approximately 5,800 people live in Estes Park.

The local Estes Park Economic Development Corporation (EDC) adopted a resolution in August urging the town council to take the issue to the voters reports the Trail Gazette. The council voted unanimously to support that idea.

"This resolution resulted from an extensive investigation into how to achieve a key goal in the Town's 2014 strategic plan: 'to encourage optimal use of the Platte River Power Authority's and Town's fiber optic infrastructure,' " [EDC's David] Batey said.

"We must take back the Town's right to decide the best way to provide competitive broadband," Batey said.

"Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life," stated the EDC.

The town and the Platte River Power Authority (PRPA) share ownership of a fiber optic network between Estes Park and nearby Loveland. The ring was installed about 10 years ago for operation of the PRPA Transmission and Substation Electric System. Flooding in 2013 eliminated the other telecommunications infrastructure connecting Estes Park to the outside world, so there is no redundancy.

The City leases several of its fibers to Level 3 for a little over $1,600 per month but connectivity in town varies. Some areas rely on dial-up while others have DSL. There are also several smaller Wi-Fi providers working in the area.

Estes Park is well known as a tourist destination and like other rural areas we have reported on, resort areas often do not have access to fast, reliable, affordable networks. As visitors increasingly expect to be connected 24/7, remote and geographically challenging regions need to rely on themselves to bring better connectivity to businesses, guests, and residents.

The community received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration. The purpose of the grant was to help the flood disaster area develop a economic diversification and industry job retention and recovery strategy. Part of that strategy involves developing better connectivity - a key to expanding beyond tourism as an economic base.

Thusfar, the community has earmarked $80,000 for a broadband study and $50,000 to develop a technology incubator co-working space.

Michigan's First Gigabit Village - Community Broadband Bits Episode 126

The small village of Sebewaing has become the first gigabit village in the state of Michigan. Superintendent of Sebewaing Light and Water utility Melanie McCoy joins us to discuss the project on episode 126 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

With approximately 1,800 people, Sebewaing has cracked the code for a small local government to deliver gigabit services to the community. In the show, we discuss previous telecommunications investments by the village and how they financed the gigabit fiber deployment.

We also discuss how Michigan law, designed to discourage municipal networks, delayed the project and increased the costs as well as the annoyance to many residents who long ago became impatient with how long it took to begin turning on the Internet service.

Read our full coverage of Sebewaing here.

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 14 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 Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama."

Boulder and Yuma Turn to Voters to Reclaim Authority

Two more Colorado communities will be deciding whether or not to reclaim local telecommunications authority this fall. Colorado State Bill 152 took away local authority in 2005 but voters in several areas of the state are taking it back. Readers will recall Centennial voters passed the measure 3:1 last fall and Montrose voters approved a similar measure in the spring.

Boulder is home to the Boulder Research and Administration Network (BRAN), a fiber network that currently serves the city, the University of Colorado, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. A conduit network is already in place and an I-Net connects dozens of municipal facilities. Community leaders decided last summer it made good sense to re-establish the authority needed to make the most of existing resources. The Daily Camera recently spoke with a ballot measure 2C supporter:

"This allows the city of Boulder to determine what to do with a resource that already exists and is already paid for," said Timothy O'Shea, a member of the Yes on 2C steering committee who has worked with Boulder start-ups.

"It will not be the City Council determining that we'll have municipalization of those services," O'Shea said. "Yes on 2C is not about that. It's about the beginning of a dialogue and getting out from under a state law that prevents us from innovating with our existing resources."

Boulder's ballot measure [PDF] reads:

Shall the City of Boulder be authorized to provide high-speed Internet servicès (advanced services), telecommunications services, andior eable television services to residents, businesses, schools, libraries, nonprofit entities and other users of such services, either directly or indirectly with public or private sector partners, as expressly permitted by çç 29-27-i01 : to '304,' "Competition in Utility and Entertainment Services," of the Colorado Revised Statutes, without limiting its home rule authority?

The Boulder Chamber of Commerce and the Boulder Weekly support the measure. 

Yuma County Colorado

Voters in Yuma County, the city of Yuma, and the Yuma county seat of Wray will decide a similar ballot question during this election. Each community will decide similar language for measures 1B, 2B, and/or 2C [PDF]:

WITHOUT INCREASING TAXES, SHALL THE CITIZENS OF YUMA COUNTY COLORADO RE-ESTABLISH THEIR COUNTIES' RIGHT TO PROVIDE ALL SERVICES AND FACILITIES RESTRICTED SINCE 2005 BY TITLE 29, ARTICLE 27 OF THE COLORADO REVISED STATUTES, DESCRIBED AS "ADVANCED SERVICES," "TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICES," AND "CABLE TELEVISION SERVICES," INCLUDING PROVIDING ANY NEW AND IMPROVED BROADBAND SERVICES AND FACILITIES BASED ON FUTURE TECHNOLOGIES, UTILIZING EXISTING OR NEW COMMUNITY OWNED INFRASTRUCTURE INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO THE EXISTING FIBER OPTIC NETWORK, EITHER DIRECTLY OR INDIRECTLY WITH PUBLIC OR PRIVATE SECTOR PARTNERS, TO POTENTIAL SUBSCRIBERS THAT MAY INCLUDE TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICE PROVIDERS, RESIDENTIAL OR COMMERCIAL USERS WITHIN THE BOUNDARIES OF YUMA COUNTY?

According to a comprehensive story by Gavin Dahl for the Boulder Weekly, Yuma County leaders recognize the key role connectivity plays in economic development:

Local officials like Yuma County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Darlene Carpio say the lack of investment from the private sector has hurt their communities.

“We just don’t have what we need here — the speeds, affordability, reliability,” she says. “The first hurdle is that Senate Bill 152 precludes us from being able to consider all options.” 

Yuma County is located on the northeast border of the state, and is home to approximately 10,000 people. A little over 3,500 live in the municipality of Yuma and about 2,300 live in Wray. Like Centennial, Montrose, and Boulder, community advocates have no specific plans to develop a municipal network at this early stage, but recognize the need to open up possibilities. The Better Internet for Yuma County website states:

There is not a “one size fits all” model that can work for every community. Yuma County formed a Broadband Task Force in 2014, hosting monthly meetings with stakeholders to address the broadband challenges. This dialogue will continue and will help us determine the right way to reach our goal. We will evaluate those models that other successful cities have used, but in the end our system should be tailored for our unique needs. We will also engage with telecommunication providers that are currently operating in our communities in an effort to develop a successful business model to address the long-term needs of our county. Developing this business model is expected to take several months.

Responding to Crazy Talk: Arguments Against FCC Restoring Local Authority - Community Broadband Bits Episode 120

Lisa Gonzalez and I have been wading though all kinds of crazy talk since the cities of Wilson and Chattanooga filed petitions with the FCC to strike down state laws that prevent them from offering Internet access to their neighbors.

In our first episode of Crazy Talk since way back in episode 72, we deal with claims that municipal networks often fail, whether the FCC has authority to restore local authority, and whether the state barriers in question are actually barriers at all.

In this episode, I refer to this article in The Atlantic regarding law schools.

Read the transcript here.

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 16 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 Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

Louisiana Municipal Association Passes Resolution in Favor of Restoring Local Authority

The Louisiana Municipal Association is the latest organization to officially support the FCC's ability to restore local authority. The group represents 305 village, town, city, and parish members. Their Executive Board unanimously passed the resolution on July 30 and recently shared it with the FCC:

WHEREAS, the universal availability of affordable high speed Internet access for all citizens has been identified as a national priority; and

WHEREAS, community/municipal broadband networks provide an option for market competition, consumer choice, economic development, and universal, affordable Internet access; and

WHEREAS, historically, local governments have ensured access to essential services by banding together to provide those services that were not offered by the private sector at a reasonable and competitive cost. This involvement has included electrification, public libraries, and other important services; and

WHEREAS, local government leaders recognize that their economic health and survival depend on connecting their communities, and they understand that it takes both private and public investment to achieve this goal; and

WHEREAS, attempts have been made at the state level to limit or stop further local government deployment of municipal Internet services through legislation, which has the potential of reducing the ability of local government to provide important information and services to their citizens in a timely, efficient, and cost effective manner; and

WHEREAS, local governments, being closest to the people are the most accountable level of government and will be held responsible for any decisions they make; and

WHEREAS, the DC Circuit Court has determined that Section 706 of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 unambiguously grants authority to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to remove barriers that deter network infrastructure investment;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Executive Board of the Louisiana Municipal Association convened at its regular business meeting on July 30, 2014 does hereby unanimously support FCC efforts to ensure local governments are able to invest in essential Internet infrastructure, if they so choose, without state-imposed barriers to discourage such an approach.

In the LMA letter to Chairman Wheeler, Executive Director Ronnie C. Harris wrote:

Communities of every size across the State of Louisiana, as in other state in  our nation, are facing overwhelming problems within this arena as they strive to bring advances in technology to their rural areas to keep up with our rapidly changing world.

Even though Louisiana is one of the states that impose restrictions on local authority, LUS Fiber in Lafayette provides fast, reliable, affordable services to an adoring public. In addition to helping shrink the digital divide, the network contributes significantly to economic development in the area. Within the past year alone, three additional tech companies have been drawn to Lafayette, bringing significant job growth. 

Opponents of restoring local authority argue there are a number of reasons why tech companies have found Lafayette attractive. It is true that the community is well known for its rich culture, beautiful environment, and mild climate. Nevertheless, without LUS Fiber, those companies would be missing an integral tool for business.

If the FCC chooses to restore local authority in North Carolina and Tennessee under section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, perhaps other Louisiana communities will ultimately be able to benefit.

Read about LUS Fiber in our case study, Broadband At The Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks. You can also hear Chris interview John St. Julian from Lafayette in Episode 19 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. They have a revealing discussion about local efforts to invest in a municipal networks and struggles the community had to overcome to realize its vision.

Local Businesses Suffer in Tennessee as State Prevents Chattanooga Expansion

As our readers know, the FCC is currently considering petitions submitted by Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina. Both communities want the ability to expand their ability to offer advanced telecommunications services, contrary to existing state anti-muni laws. As we glance through the comments, we notice that ISPs, advocacy groups, and local governments are not the only commenters with a vested interest in the outcome. 

There are also compelling stories from individuals, local businesses, and organizations that are looking for better options. In some cases they have one provider but are unhappy with the service so support municipal network expansion. In other cases, they have dial-up (or no service at all) and are maddeningly close to an EPB or Greenlight connection but state restrictions forbid service to them.

We recently spoke with Joyce Coltrin, owner of J & J Nursery located on the edge of Cleveland, Tennessee, in Bradley County. She is about 32 miles from the heart of Chattanooga but only 3/8 mile from the edge of the EPB fiber optic service area. Her only choice for Internet at her nursery is AT&T dial-up. Joyce tells us:

"I could walk right to it - it is the closest provider and we don't have any broadband access!"

Joyce submitted comments early in the proceedings. She choose to send her comments via snail mail because her email is so unreliable.

For the past 15 years, Joyce and other people in her community have requested better service from AT&T. They were told repeatedly it would be 3 months, 6 months, 9 months until they would get upgrades but it never happened. They finally decided to look for connectivity elsewhere. Joyce and her neighbors approached their electric provider, Volunteer Energy Cooperative, in the hopes that they could work with EPB to bring services to the area. Volunteer and EPB had already discussed the possibility, but when the state law was passed that prevented EPB from expanding, the efforts to collaborate cooled.

Joyce uses her cell phone to access the Internet while she is at work. Like some of the other business owners in Cleveland, Joyce pays $200 - $300 per month because she is constantly running over data caps to conduct business. There are others who live or work in areas near her that do not have cell phone coverage.

Another local business owner that runs a poultry business almost lost a large number of chicks when their alarm system, dependent on wireless Internet access through a Verizon "MiFi" personal hotspot, failed during cold weather.

Joyce does not plan on expanding to an online store but she finds it difficult to adhere to state business regulations without better connectivity. For instance, she must do business taxes online from home, where she has a little better Internet access.

She knows that Tennessee's anti-muni laws came from giant cable and telco lobbying efforts. She also recognizes the negative impact it is having on Cleveland. In her comments to the FCC, Joyce writes:

College students drive to McDonald's to use Wi-Fi and work from their cars to do homework and projects. This situation is choking business and making our children third class citizens.

I have always been for free enterprise, but when some businesses win due to unfair protection, free enterprise dies.

To read the rest of Joyce's comments, visit the FCC website.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - September 12

This week, you might have been tripped up by some infuriating “spinning wheels of death” on the Internet, but don’t worry, the slow-down was largely symbolic— at least for now. Fierce Telecom covered the Internet Slowdown Day protest on Wednesday, organized by “Battle for the Net." It was designed to bring attention to what will happen if so-called “slow lanes” are allowed under new FCC net neutrality rules. 

Netflix, MuniNetworks, Kickstarter, Reddit, and thousands of other sites took part in the protest. “The New Yorker’s” Vauhini Vara writes that Internet Slowdown Day produced more than 700 thousand comments about proposed FCC rules. 

Meanwhile, Amazon is positioning itself to come out on top whichever way the Net Neutrality rules fall. Susan Crawford urged the FCC to take action and “Think Chattanooga.”

“This is not a story of huge companies fighting one another. This is a sweeping narrative of private control over the central utility of our era: high-capacity Internet access. We, the people of the United States, are the collateral damage in this battle; we are stuck with second-class, expensive service.”

Muni Networks are gaining more ground, with Chattanooga and Wilson, NC still in the spotlight. Anne L. Kim took up the issue of preemption on CQ Roll Call. She interviewed Chris Mitchell for the article:

“Communities build their own networks because they think the private sector isn’t investing in them, said Christopher Mitchell… According to Mitchell, in the case of city-wide municipal fiber networks, reasons for deployment are often a mix of getting fast, reliable service at an affordable price.”

Blogger KateCA of My FireDogLake commented on the failings of the invisible hand in the telecom realm in her Corporations and The Commons post. 

“While free enterprise usually merits a hearty rah-rah in certain circles, competition between for-profit entities and publicly-owned ones seems to be a no-no, at least to Rep Blackburn and her crowd when it comes to [Chatanooga’s] EPB.”

In The New York Times, Colin Dougherty laments the search for a killer app in cities where Google Fiber has set down roots. He talked to Chris Mitchell and other experts about the difference between local control and dependence on a corporation like Google:

“It felt like a righteous invading tech company coming in to tell us how to run the city,” he said. Faster Internet helps Google in lots of ways."

The more time users spend searching the web or watching YouTube videos, the more ads Google sells and the more Google services people use. The company could also use Fiber to test new services like household-targeted TV commercials.

As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced his intention to address barriers to competition and broadband deployment, several reporters, including Stephen Hardy of Lightwave Online wrote on the topic.

Regarding the definition of broadband, Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin and Fierce Telecom’s Sean Buckley wrote that AT&T, Verizon, and others made claims that consumers simply don’t need or want faster Internet speeds.

"Consumer behavior strongly reinforces the conclusion that a 10 Mbps service exceeds what many Americans need today to enable basic, high-quality transmissions," AT&T wrote in a filing. 

AT&T’s comments were made public after Wheeler mentioned that the current definition for broadband is much slower than is necessary for economic growth.  

Casey Houser suggests that gig networks are forcing big telecom to play a game of “anything you can do I can do better”. But many communities are not waiting around for the big guys to come in. More announced this week they are dipping their collective toes into the municipal broadband pool. 

Lexington, KY mayor Jim Gray says he’s moving forward to give his city a big gig push. 

Austin, MN’s Vision 2020 group is studying how it can get its own gig, after being passed over by Google Fiber three years ago. The Daily Herald’s Trey Mewes reports that the group will be going door-to-door to get feedback about the Gig Austin proposal.

Finally, a recent article in The Advertiser counters some false statements made by a paid muni network hit man. Lafayette Utilities System (LUS) director Terry Huval said a report published by “Reason”, and written by Steven Titch is extremely flawed and biased. 

“Steven Titch, a paid analyst, and formerly a news editor in the telecommunications industry, has been criticizing LUS Fiber and other municipal broadband systems for virtually the past decade,” Huval wrote in response to the report. He takes data and twists it in a way that meets the particular needs of that client,” he said. “The bottom line for us is we are doing well. We are growing every year.”

Blackburn and Wheeler: Awkward Penpals

Back in June, some sixty House Republicans led by Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn sent an open letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler expressing their “deep concern” with his support for community networks. They took issue with comments he made at a House Energy and Commerce hearing in May, indicating his willingness to preempt incumbent-sponsored anticompetitive state laws that handicap or outright ban municipal networks. 

In the the views of Rep. Blackburn and her allies, this “sets a dangerous precedent and violates state sovereignty in a manner that warrants deeper examination.” They demanded answers from Chairman Wheeler on a set of eight questions so leading that they would make even the most partisan pollster blush. They featured many of the same “states’ rights,” “unelected federal bureaucrat,” and “unconstitutional authority” talking points used later in the floor debate over Blackburn’s anti-muni amendment, softened up and rephrased just a bit for polite company. 

In late July, Chairman Wheeler offered a formal written response. He opened with a diplomatically worded overview of the U.S. broadband sector, before launching into the heart of the matter:

“...Many states have enacted laws that place a range of restrictions on communities’ ability to make their own decisions about their own future. There is reason to believe that these laws have the effect of limiting competition in those areas, contrary to almost two decades of bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition. I respect the important role of state governments in our federal system, but I also know that state laws which directly conflict with critical federal laws and policy may be subject to preemption in appropriate circumstances.”

While the legal debate is all about the extent of federal authority, Chairman Wheeler correctly identifies the real policy issue: "communities' ability to make their own decisions about their own future." Preemption [meaning removing state preemption] is about enabling choice, not forcing any particular option on a local community. Conversely, "states' rights" is used by Rep. Blackburn and her allies as a blanket permission to dictate to every county, township, and municipality in a given state that they must take service from monopolistic incumbents or go without broadband entirely.

 

Chairman Wheeler gamely answered each of the questions in Blackburn’s letter, despite the fact that some were little more than veiled threats:

[Blackburn et. al:] “1. If the courts struck down the FCC’s ploy to override state laws restricting municipal broadband do you believe that such a decision would weaken the credibility of the FCC?” 

[Wheeler:] The commission gives careful consideration to all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues before making decisions…As you know, final Commission decisions are typically subject to judicial review, but I do not believe that is a reason to shy away from making important decisions. 

Translation: 

Blackburn: Don't even think about it, we will sue you. 

Wheeler: Fine by me.

Several of the other questions were variations on the theme of “How dare you!”:

[Blackburn et. al:] “2. Why does the FCC believe state governors and state legislators should not have a say over how to govern the political subdivisions of their state even though that is what they are elected to do by voters?”

and 

[Blackburn et. al] “7. Did you ever ask Congress for the authority to override states’ rights with respect to municipal broadband?”  

In defending the legal soundness of preemption, Chairman Wheeler quoted both the language of Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act as well as several favorable circuit court decisions that “specifically characterized preemption of state laws restricting municipal broadband as a ‘paradigmatic’ example of the authority given by Congress to the FCC under Section 706.”

Perhaps the best encapsulation of the entire tense Blackburn-Wheeler correspondence is given in the following exchange: 

[Blackburn et. al:] “6. How does the FCC believe Section 706 authority trumps the states’ rights in the Constitution?”  

[Wheeler:] As explained above, Section 706 establishes a strong federal policy of ensuring that broadband is available to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. When state laws come into direct conflict with critically important federal law and policy, it is a long-standing principle of Constitutional law that state laws can be subject to federal preemption in appropriate cases. I do not view federal preemption as a matter to be undertaken lightly. Such action must be premised on careful consideration of all relevant issues. As noted above, in any proceeding involving these issues, the Commission will consider all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues presented to determine the appropriate course of action. 

This is the correspondence in a nutshell: Blackburn and her allies are hopping mad about the prospect of their big telecom donors having to compete with municipal networks or private companies partnered with municipal networks, and Chairman Wheeler is striking a measured, non-provocative tone while sticking to his guns on the need to restore local authority to increase competition. The qualifying phrase “the Commission will consider all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues presented” appears, by my count, eight times in Wheeler's four page letter. 

The Blackburn-Wheeler exchange stands in contrast to the response letter sent by Wheeler to Pennsylvania Democrat Representative Mike Doyle, which contains much of the same language and phrases but strikes a decidedly different tone. Chairman Wheeler apparently had no objections to Rep. Doyle’s pro-municipal network letter, and was in fact “heartened by [his] support for community broadband.” 

While the FCC rulemaking process sometimes seems like a black box, there are many political aspects to its decisions that extend into the public arena. Reading the tea leaves on exchanges like these between Congress and the FCC does not necessarily offer definitive answers, but it does appear to indicate that Chairman Wheeler is leaning in the right direction and may be willing to take the inevitable heat that a decision in favor of restoring local authority would bring.

National Journal Traces Growth of Partisanship in Municipal Broadband Debate

In an excellent piece titled “How Republicans Flip-Flopped on Government-Run Internet,” the National Journal outlines the disappointing political evolution of municipal broadband, from a bipartisan local choice issue to an anti-Obama Administration, pro-incumbent telecom, states’ rights issue. 

It was not so long ago (2005, to be precise) that three Republican senators (John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Norm Coleman) joined three Democrats in sponsoring legislation that would enshrine the principle of local choice explicitly in law, preempting anti-muni state laws pushed by incumbent lobbyists. A year later, 215 House Republicans voted for a bill that included a similar preemption provision. In 2007, even more Republican Senators joined McCain and Graham, including Olympia Snowe, Ted Stevens, and Gordon Smith. Their communications bill, including local choice provisions, narrowly missed becoming the law of the land due to fights over unrelated net neutrality issues. 

Yet somehow, in 2014, we have the Blackburn anti-muni amendment passing the House floor with nearly unanimous Republican support: 223-200. There are multiple reasons for this, including the generational shift in the Republican Party away from moderates like McCain and towards the more insurrectionist Tea Party. The Journal article also cites the ubiquitous hostility to anything associated with President Obama, even extending to statements made by his nominees at the FCC in favor of federal preemption. Ever greater lobbying spending by cable and telecom incumbents has helped muddy the water for municipal broadband as well.

Yet even some of the same Republicans who once supported local choice now oppose it. Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the current and former Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that handles communications issues, was one of the leading figures in pushing the bill that included preemption in 2006 and 2007. In 2014, he joined his caucus in voting for Blackburn’s amendment to stop such preemption. From the Journal:

An Upton spokesman claimed there's nothing inconsistent about supporting a bill to nullify state restrictions and opposing FCC action that would do the same thing.

"Voters and their elected representatives, not bureaucrats at the FCC, should make the decision whether to spend tax dollars on municipal broadband," the spokesman said in a statement.    

This is conveniently myopic logic, considering it is voters and their elected representatives at the local level who are being blocked from deciding municipal broadband issues in some 20 states but the very laws Upton has helped keep in place.

The article, while somewhat disheartening about the current state of things, also underscores a fundamental truth about community networks: they are not intrinsically partisan. There is no set-in-stone law that says Republicans must oppose them at all costs. They are not about government mandates, the size of government, executive overreach, or any other red herring. Community networks are about choice, exercised by residents and the elected officials that are their neighbors, to decide for themselves what they need and how to get it. It doesn’t get much more Jeffersonian than that.