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LaGrange Muni Network Serves Business and Government in Georgia

As the Georgia legislature considers HB 282, a bill that will restrict local governments from investing in telecommunications networks, we are continuing coverage of the communities that will be harmed by passage of the legislation.

Should the restrictions become law, existing networks will not be able to expand. No expansion means fewer opportunities to reap the benefits that flow naturally from community networks. While this means few residents will receive access in places like Thomasville and Moultrie, it also means fewer businesses will receive access in places where networks exclusively serve commercial customers and government offices. 

LaGrange's IT Director, Alan Slaughenhaupt, told us a little about its municipal network that began in 1996. The community decided to build its own network when no private provider would. The first goal was to get the K-12 schools connected. Bonds funded the network build out and were paid off within five years. At the time, the city partnered with ISN (Later Earthlink) to get the schools connected. LaGrange now partners with Charter Communications to bring connectivity to students.

The LaGrange network now connects hospitals, most city, county, and state government facilities, and provides connectivity for businesses.  Alan describes how a T1 connection cost local businesses $2,300 per month in 1996. Now, thanks to competition created by the community owned network, local businesses can pay just $100 for a connection with better capacity. The municipal network serves about 400 commercial customers.

Kia Logo

Alan explained that the automaker Kia moved a manufacturing facility near LaGrange in 2009 that used Just-In-Time inventory control. It needed a high-speed connection between the main plant and suppliers that LaGrange could deliver.

The move created 2,500 new jobs at the factory, each paying between $14.90 and $23.50 per hour. Along with the positions in the factory, came 3,000 auto-related jobs with suppliers located near the facility. Today, Kia has moved its main manufacturing to a different location and a different network, but its suppliers still use the LaGrange network. The Kia story is only one of many ways the network has contributed to LaGrange's economy since 1996.

Because of the competitive rates, the personal customer service, and quick responses to network problems, businesses continue to seek out LaGrange network services. Alan says there is no advertising and the network continues to grow. It has never been in the red. This network, like many others operated on a local level, is successfully serving the community.

Like other community leaders we talk to about HB 282, Alan fears the long term result if the bill becomes law. The community of LaGrange has not fit into the bill's definition of "unserved" in years, which means expansion would end. Without the ability to grow, Alan feels it would only be a matter of time before the network would eventually end. Economic development, useful connections for the schools, libraries and hospitals, and substantial public savings would also end.

We encourage you to contact Georgia Legislators to voice your opposition. 

Georgia Mayor: "I Hate to Think What Our Community Would Be Like Without Our Network"

Recently on Gigabit Nation, host Craig Settles visited with Mayor Max Beverly from Thomasville, Georgia. As our readers know, the Georgia General Assembly is again considering a bill to limit municipal efforts to bring connectivity to local residents and businesses. That bill is currently scheduled to be heard on Tuesday afternoon, 2/26, but many people have already expressed their anger at it in Facebook comments on the bill page.

HB 282 sets a very low bar for what is considered "served" - 1.5 Mbps - and prohibits municipal networks from serving those areas while also imposing a new heavy cost on investing in unserved areas. 

Mayor Beverly discusses how he and other Georgia community leaders are fighting HB 282 through education. Speaking from first-hand experience, he finds that elected officials often turn from support to opposition when they hear about the incredible success of Thomasville. 

Mayor Beverly finds himself sharing the story of Thomasville's victories that are all tied with the network, created in 1999. In Thomasville:

  • direct profits from the telecommunications utility have eliminated city taxes - police, fire, and other city services are funded through the $2 million+ contributed to the general fund
  • over 500,000 people in south Georgia have received state-of-the-art healthcare services which could not have been delivered without the incredible capacity of the network over a multi-county area
  • over 6,000 jobs (including many in the hospital and its clinics) have come to Thomasville through employers that would not have been able to locate there prior to the services offered through the network
  • about 70 schools over a 10 county region receive network services that Mayor Beverly describes as a "game changer" in educational opportunity

Settles and Mayor Beverly also spent time on what makes Thomasville such a success. The Mayor attributes the community's entrepreneurial approach and their unsurpassed customer relationships. The network and its staff are local and accountable to the people it serves so there is no place for anything other than superb customer service.

The business and residents depend on the Thomasville network. Mayor Beverly, like all the other officals we talk to, can't imagine life in their town without the network. While fighting legislation like HB 282, Mayor Beverly has encountered other elected officials from places where community owned networks are being planned or considered. He says that those leaders all have the same message for the legislature: "Our areas are behind now and if you pass this bill we will always be behind."

Listen to the entire interview on Gigabit Nation to learn about Thomasville's incredible network.

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FCC Chairman Issues Statement Opposing State Muni Broadband Limitations

Last Friday, FCC Chairman Genachowski issued a statement discouraging states from creating (or maintaining) barriers to community owned networks. This statement came just days after Georgia began considering a bill to limit local authority in deciding whether a network were a wise decision.

As we’ve recognized in law and policy for many years, public-private partnerships are also essential for driving broadband deployment. Public-private partnerships like the Connect America Fund, which drives universal broadband deployment, and municipal and public -private projects like those in Chattanooga, Tennessee and San Leandro, California are also vital components of our national broadband strategy. Our Gigabit City Challenge and the important work of Gig.U to drive ultra -fast broadband centers for innovation can also benefit from innovative local approaches to broadband infrastructure. That’s why the National Broadband Plan stated that, when private investment isn’t a feasible option for broadband deployment, local governments ‘have the right to move forward and build networks that serve their constituents as they deem appropriate.’

If a community can’t gain access to broadband services that meet its needs, then it should be able to serve its own residents directly. Proposals that would tie the hands of innovative communities that want to build their own high-speed networks will slow progress to our nation’s broadband goals and will hurt economic development and job creation in those areas. I urge state and local leaders to focus instead on proposals that incentivize investment in broadband infrastructure, remove barriers to broadband build-out, and ensure widespread access to high-speed networks.”

This is a welome development as the FCC has long opposed such barriers (thank you Commissioner Clyburn as well for long speaking out on this issue) but the Chairman himself has not been as direct as this.

The Chairman regularly uses Chattanooga as an example of a tremendously successful network and again noted that community in this statement. This provides some explanation for what it means when private investment isn't a feasible option -- as Chattanooga already had DSL and cable Internet access from its incumbent providers.

Georgia's leaders need to pay attention to this fact because the ultimate question is not whether a community has DSL, cable, or wireless but whether its telecommunications services are meeting the needs of local businesses and residents.

That is the real test and can only be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the community itself.

Roundup of Coverage of Georgia Bill to Slow Telecom Investment

In just a few days, we have seen many articles discussing how unwise and dangerous HB 282 is for the future of economic development in Georgia. This bill will revoke local authority to decide for themselves if any public investment in telecommunications is a wise choice.

We already noted coverage from DSL Reports, Free Press, and Stop the Cap. Here are some others.

CivSource, a news source for civic leaders, quickly wrote about the bill, placing it in national context.

Municipal broadband has been under steady attack nationwide by incumbent broadband providers like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon. They contend that networks built by cities and counties that also offer subscription options for residents amount to unfair competition. They won this fight in North and South Carolina, but, following more coverage of the issue, fights in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Georgia have been harder to win.

Ars Technica's Timothy Lee also covered the bill, including common pro and con arguments. But he gets something that many other reporters don't notice,

Moreover, limiting which parts of town a municipal fiber network can serve might make it impossible for that town to cost-effectively reach under-served sections with broadband service. It's often more cost-effective to deploy fiber to an entire town than to deploy fiber selectively to only certain parts of town. The neighborhoods being served by an incumbent are likely to be the wealthiest and densest parts of town. Banning towns from deploying fiber to those parts of town may make it impossible to cover the fixed costs of a municipal fiber project.

GamePolitics.com, a site focusing on that area where politics and video games collide, ran an article entitled, "How Georgia Lawmakers Are Working to Keep its Citizens' Broadband Connections From Improving."

But there's a quiet movement - a greasing of the wheels, if you like - to put a stop to that by telcos and low-end broadband providers that rely on old infrastructure. The latest state to try and legislate limits on what towns and cities can do to improve broadband is in Georgia, where state lawmakers have introduced Georgia House Bill 282, or "the Municipal Broadband Investment Act."

And finally, MediaPost discussed the propose limitations on muni broadband:

The Georgia Municipal Association intends to rally opposition to the bill. "Broadband is economic development," Amy Henderson, communications director for the GMA, tells MediaPost. She adds that cities "don't want the possibility of it being restricted." Currently, 13 cities have created their own broadband networks in the state.

The municipal group points out on its blog that a recent report from the governor's office said that rural parts of the state "are at a competitive disadvantage because of lack of access to broadband networks.

Georgia Anti-Internet Bill Hearing Rescheduled for Next Week

In the 30 hours since we learned of a bill in Georgia to revoke local authority to decide for themselves if a broadband network is a wise investment, we have seen a big response! Some of that is detailed below, but what matters for now is that HB 282 was bumped from today to next week.

The committee roster is here, please keep spreading the word and making phone calls. If you have contacts in Georgia that want more detail, send them our way.

The Georgia Municipal Association Blog quickly explained why this bill limits the ability of towns to attract jobs to their communities.

The fundamental question is rather simple, does Georgia want local leaders to determine the economic and investment strategies for their communities or do we want those decisions to be made solely on the business plan of companies based outside of the state?

And they go on to quote the former City Manager of Adel:

After much deliberation and public demand, the City of Adel launched our wireless internet system, Southlink, in 2003. There were NO INCUMBENT, HIGH-SPEED PROVIDERS at that time with no indication of interest by anyone. The City of Adel did what no investor-owned company would consider, yet the citizens and businesses in Adel deserved the service just as much as those citizens of Atlanta, Macon, Augusta or Savannah. The business plan worked and we gained customers. Within four years of our launch, both Alltel and Mediacom launched true high-speed service to the area. With our original intent served, we then dismantled the wireless system in 2009 and 2010 and the citizens had service options.

We did not launch the service to compete with incumbent providers and we gave them every chance to provide the service. Did our positive action create the impetus for other providers to bring in their service? I will let you decide that.

And finally, the video below notes how the city of Thomasville benefited from building its own network.

Karl Bode, of DSL Reports, sounds off on this attempt to restrict competition:

As is usually the case, the industry argues that it's simply unfair for them to have to compete with government, yet the reality is they're using government to ensure they never have to compete with towns -- or anybody else. If Windstream and AT&T were providing adequate service in Georgia, towns and cities in the state wouldn't be attempting the very difficult task of trying to wire themselves.

We have seen these attempts before. Recall that Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink spent more than $1 million over many years in North Carolina to limit competition -- something we documented in a recent report. Since passing that bill, North Carolina has seen its broadband prices rise and investment in rural areas remain stagnant.

Video: 
See video

Georgia Bill Aims to Limit Investment In Internet Networks

Stay updated on developments by following this tag.

The Georgia General Assembly is considering another bill to limit investment in telecommunications networks in the state, an odd proposition when just about everyone agrees states need as much investment in these networks as possible.

House Bill 282, the "Municipal Broadband Investment Act," purports to limit the ability of public entities to invest only in "unserved" areas. But as usual, the devil is in the details. This bill will be discussed on Wednesday, Feb 13 at 4:00 EST in the Telecom Subcommittee of the House Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications committee (Committee roster here).

We strongly encourage Georgians to write to members of this committee and explain that these decisions should be made at the local level, not by the state. Communities each face unique circumstances regarding the need for telecommunications investment and they can be trusted to make informed decisions after weighing the available evidence.

Many local governments have invested in modest networks to connect local businesses, but such investments will be prohibited in Georgia if residents in the area are already served with a connection of at least 1.5 Mbps in one direction. This baseline is far lower standard than the FCC's definition of "basic" broadband: 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. Setting a low baseline hurts communities but rewards carriers that have refused to invest in modern networks.

This bill poses a dramatic threat to the ability of local governments to encourage economic development and provide the environment necessary for the private sector to create the jobs every community needs. See our fact sheet on how public broadband investments have created jobs.

Supporters of this bill will claim that it only restricts investment to areas that are most needing it. This argument is not only flat wrong, it comes mostly from those most interested in preventing, not encouraging, investment.

The bill will effectively prohibit any community investment because the cost of collecting the data and making the case that areas are unserved is prohibitive, particularly when the bar for what constitutes being unserved is set unrealistically low. The cost of collecting data at the census block level is high and communities are extremely unlikely to spend the necessary sums when there is no guarantee they will be able to take action on it.

Additionally, requiring a network to operate only in unserved areas is akin to requiring a health insurance plan to only accept terminally ill patients. A network requires a mix of densities and households in order to be sustainable. Should any community build a network under these circumstances, however unlikely, such a network would almost certainly require ongoing subsidization, which would then be used as evidence for why such a network should never have been built. Heads they win, tails we lose.

This bill is much sneakier than last year's broadside attack on community networks. Rather than aggressively challenging community broadband, this approach appears to be more reasonable, even as it creates the same result: greatly limiting the authority of communities to decide for themselves whether an investment is appropriate for encouraging economic development.

Windstream Logo

We understand that Windstream is the main lobbyist pushing this bill forward in an attempt to protect the networks they have refused to upgrade to modern standards. Windstream is just one of several large telecommunications companies that does not have the capacity to invest in the next-generation networks demanded in the 21st century economy. For instance, see this recent story from Missouri about Windstream:

“People feel they are paying for a service they are not getting,” Rep. Fitzwater told Windstream. “I get emails every day, letters, telephone calls. McAllister Software is a major employer, employing around 140 people. They are vital to the local economy, and they need internet service. There were about 45 hours last year that they had to shut their doors because they had no internet. There are other businesses in town that are affected by internet speeds. The other day there was a water main break and school was closed; some of the businesses had to shut down because of reduced internet speeds because the kids were online playing games.”

Even as Windstream cannot provide the necessary speeds, they are pushing a bill to make it harder for others to step in and provide the necessary services. This is why the bill uses a 1.5 Mbps standard, DSL often provides that below-basic level of service but does not support common applications or business needs.

In short, this is a bill that will only hurt the residents and businesses of Georgia, taking away one of the only methods a community can ensure it is ready for the digital economy.

Op-Ed: NC In Bottom of Broadband Barrel

Common Cause's Todd O'Boyle and myself have just published an opinion piece in the North Carolina News & Observer to highlight the foolishness of the General Assembly revoking local authority to build broadband networks.

Todd and I teamed up for a case study of North Carolina's most impressive fiber network, Greenlight, owned by the city of Wilson and then turned our attention to how Time Warner Cable turned around to lobby the state to take that right away from communities. That report, The Empire Lobbies Back, was released earlier this month.

An excerpt from our Op-Ed:

The Tar Heel economy is continuing its transition from tobacco and textiles to high technology. Internet startups populate the Research Triangle, and Charlotte’s financial services economy depends on high-quality data connections. Truly, next-generation Internet connections are crucial to the state.

It is deeply disturbing that the Federal Communications Commission ranks North Carolina at the bottom nationally – tied with Mississippi – in the percentage of households subscribing to a “basic broadband” connection. The residents and businesses of nearly every other state have superior connections.

Read the whole thing here.

Fact Sheets

Facts sheets focusing on specific topics surrounding community owned broadband networks. Read more »

After Buying NC Legislation, AT&T Kills NC Jobs

When the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill written by the cable and telephone industry (with help from ALEC), they probably didn't expect AT&T to turn around and slash its local workforce.

And yet, that is what AT&T has done: "Hey North Carolina, thanks for that monopoly, hope you don't mind if we move a bunch of jobs down to Alabama."

We had just published our report on how Time Warner Cable and AT&T bought anti-competition legislation in North Carolina when we heard the layoff news.

Unfortunately, there is no real surprise there -- the big telecom firms are much better at slashing jobs than creating them. The increased profits from the consolidation that creates such big firms arise specifically from eliminating jobs. To AT&T, the workers in Greensboro are inefficient. After all, AT&T is a global company -- those call service jobs could be done in Birmingham or India.

If the networks serving Greensboro and surrounding communities were locally owned, particularly if owned by the communities themselves, the support jobs would almost certainly be local. That may strike AT&T as inefficient, but perfect efficiency by that definition leaves most of us unemployed.

The question for North Carolina is when it will recognize that its own best interests lie far from the best interests of Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink. If North Carolina wants to be a leader in the digital age, it has to let its communities decide for themselves if slow DSL and cable connections cut it or whether they would prefer to build their own blazing-fast, low cost networks like Wilson's Fiber Optic Greenlight.

Take a minute help us spread our graphic on Facebook today, about North Carolina's dumb decision. If you want to stay in the loop when these companies threaten states with restrictive laws, sign up on DecideLocally.com to get occasional alerts.

The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina

Publication Date: 
January 3, 2013
Author(s): 
Todd O'Boyle, Common Cause
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

In late 2006, Wilson, North Carolina, voted to build a Fiber-­‐to-­‐the-­‐Home network. Wilson’s decision came after attempts to work with Time Warner Cable and EMBARQ (now CenturyLink) to improve local connectivity failed.

Wilson’s decision and resulting network was recently examined in a case study by Todd O’Boyle of Common Cause and ILSR's Christopher Mitchell titled Carolina’s Connected Community: Wilson Gives Greenlight to Fast Internet. This new report picks up with Wilson’s legacy: an intense multiyear lobbying campaign by Time Warner Cable, AT&T, CenturyLink, and others to bar communities from building their own networks. The report examines how millions of political dollars bought restrictions in the state that will propagate private monopolies rather than serve North Carolinians.

Download the new report here: The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina

These companies can and do try year after year to create barriers to community-­‐owned networks. They only have to succeed once; because of their lobbying power, they have near limitless power to stop future bills that would restore local authority. Unfortunately, success means more obstacles and less economic development for residents and businesses in North Carolina and other places where broadband accessibility is tragically low.

It certainly makes sense for these big companies to want to limit local authority to build next-­‐generation networks. What remains puzzling is why any state legislature would want to limit the ability of a community to build a network to improve educational outcomes, create new jobs, and give both residents and businesses more choices for an essential service. This decision should be made by those that have to feel the consequences—for better and for worse.

This story was originally posted on the ILSR website.