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Local Media Sees Need for Municipal Network in Olympia, Washington

Local news editors seem inspired by the current network neutrality debate at the FCC. Newsrooms considering the prospect of paid prioritization are reassessing the value of municipal networks.

Not long ago, the Olympian ran an editorial offering the basics of municipal networks. Editors mentioned NoaNet, the statewide fiber project that brings access to a series of community anchor insitutions and approximately 260,000 people. The piece also acknowledges that port authorities and some Public Utility Districts (PUDs) offer fiber connections in several regions of the state. We have reported on a number of them, including Benton, Okanogan, and Chelan.

The editorial points out that the cities of Lacey, Olympia, and Tumwater have fiber and conduit they use for government operations. The cities share the fiber and conduit with the state Department of Transportation. The Olympian also notes that if a city wants to provide telecommunications services, its location is critical:

Republican Sen. Trent Lott championed a 1996 bill that prohibited states from blocking any entity that provides telecommunications services. Despite that far-sighted bill, big provider lobbyists have persuaded 20 states to pass legislation making open access difficult. 

As suggested by other editors, The Olympian advocates for a municipal approach to curtail damage that will result if network neutrality disappears:

If approved, individual consumers in the South Sound and other U.S. communities can expect slower speeds for smaller services, nonprofits and independent content creators. Why pay for the “HOT” lane, unless traffic is backed up on the main line?

...

If the FCC votes to effectively end net neutrality, residents of the South Sound do have a potential alternative that is gaining traction elsewhere: turning to local Internet service providers who ride on municipally-owned fiber optic networks.

Paid prioritization and the proposed Comcast Time Warner Cable merger may result in further degredation of broadband in American. On the bright side, more people realize that municipal networks are a better option.

Governing Looks at What the Comcast - Time Warner Cable Merger Could Do to Munis

The debate surrounding the proposed Comcast Time Warner Cable merger continues. The Department of Justice and the FCC ruminate over the deal while the media speculates about the future.

Governing recently published an article on potential side effects for the municipal network movement. Tod Newcombe reached out to Chris for expert opinion.

From Governing:

Partially thanks to Comcast and other cable giant's lobbying, 19 states have already passed laws that ban or restrict local communities from setting up publicly owned alternatives to the dominant provider in the area. Municipalities that pursue publicly owned broadband often cite several reasons for their efforts, ranging from lack of competition and choices in the area to a desire for faster speeds at lower costs. But Mitchell fears the lobbying power of a combined Comcast-Time Warner would choke off what little leverage remains for local governments when it comes to gaining state approval to build publicly owned broadband networks.

Unfortunately, the cable company cyclops borne out of this deal would create a ginormous lobbying monster. Comcast and Time Warner Cable wield significant political influence separately; a marriage of the two would likely damage the municipal network movement. The Center for Responsive Politics reports Comcast spent over $18 million in 2013; Time Warner Cable spent over $8 million.

Chris told Governing:

"Judging by the amount of opposition to the merger, I think people are seeing that we're at a tipping point and that there are ways they can make investments at the local level and control their own destiny," said Mitchell. "A lot of people and local businesses understand that the Internet is really important and that we can't trust it to a few corporations. But I don't see that level of understanding from most elected officials yet."

Resort Town In Utah Seeks Partner to Expand Economic Base with FTTH

Park City wants to be one of the first resort communities to employ an FTTH gigabit network. Currently, over 22 million visitors come to the northern ski town each year bringing approximately $500 million in tourist spending. The community of 7,600 permanent residents seeks to diversify its economic base. According to a recent Park City News article, community leaders see broadband as an essential tool. 

Utah, one of the states that impose barriers to community networks, imposes de facto wholesale-only requirements on municipal networks. Park City's April Request for Proposals [PDF] clearly states that they seek a private partner to own, operate, and manage a network across the city. Proposals are due May 16.

Park City has smaller segments of fiber in place now for internal operations. The company securing the project will have access to that fiber for the network. The City also plans to allow access to existing conduit, rights-of-way, and city-owned poles as part of the new network. Park City does not operate its own electric utility.

Four years ago, Park City competed to attract Google Fiber, which eventually went to Kansas City. In the spring of 2013, city leaders developed a broadband roadmap. At the time, community leaders began contemplating the economic development benefits associated with better connectivity. From a May 2013 Park City News article:

Leaders want to create a diversified economy stretching beyond the sectors tied to the resort industry. Doing so, they say, would make the economy less susceptible to warm, dry winters that do not attract skiers in large numbers.

Technology upgrades, they say, are important as officials attempt to attract new businesses to Park City not tied to the resort industry.

Wheeler Tells Cable Industry He Intends to Remove Anti-Competitive State Laws

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is prepared to roll back restrictions that prevent local governments from deciding if a municipal network would be a wise investment. At the Cable Show Industry conference in Los Angeles, Wheeler told cable industry leaders the FCC will wield its powers to reduce state barriers on municipal networks.

Wheeler spoke before the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) on April 30. These words perked up our ears and those of community networks advocates across the U.S. From a transcript of Wheeler's speech

"One place where it may be possible is municipally owned or authorized broadband systems. I understand that the experience with community broadband is mixed, that there have been both successes and failures. But if municipal governments—the same ones that granted cable franchises—want to pursue it, they shouldn’t be inhibited by state laws. I have said before, that I believe the FCC has the power – and I intend to exercise that power – to preempt state laws that ban competition from community broadband."

As our readers remember, a January DC Circuit Court of Appeals decision opened the path for the FCC to take the action Wheeler proposes. Since then, communities have expressed their desire for local authority with resolutions and letters of support. Communities in Michigan and Louisiana, Georgia and Idaho, Illinois, Maryland and Kansas, have shared their resolutions with us. A number of other communities have issued letters of support encouraging action under section 706.

Ars Technica contacted the FCC for more information on Chairman Wheeler's statements. Ars reported:

An FCC spokesperson contacted by Ars said that Wheeler "is not trying to make a distinction between 'ban' or 'limit.' The point is to look at the effect of the law."

The spokesperson said, "We will be taking up this issue in the technology transitions proceedings, and there should be an announcement about this in the next few weeks." It's too early to say "how [Wheeler] will address existing state laws."

As the big companies like Comcast consolidate, enforce bandwidth caps and continuously raise prices, municipal networks are more important than ever. Community owned networks are accountable to the people who use them and put the public good ahead of profit. Community networks are managed in your neighborhood, not in a corner office thousands of miles away.

The content of Wheeler's statement and his choice of venue inspires advocates for publicly owned networks. In order to keep a strong momentum rolling, we encourage you to express your support. The cable and telecommunications lobbyists are already working to prevent the FCC from taking action. When the FCC begins to act, we will want to demonstrate support.

Join our one-email-per-week newsletter to stay in the loop on these developments! If you are excited to demonstrate local support via a resolution or similar effort, let us know.

GovTech Reports on Broadband Legislation in Five States

Broadband is a topic of interest in several state legislative chambers this session. In a recent Government Technology article, Brian Heaton focused on five states where community broadband is particularly contentious. In some cases, legislators want to expand opportunities while others seek to limit local authority.

We introduced you to the Kansas anti-competition bill in January. The bill was pulled back this year but could be back next year. When the business community learned about the potential effects of SB 304, they expressed their dismay. From the article:

Eleven companies and trade organizations – including Google – signed a letter opposing SB 304 as a “job-killer” that restricts communications services expansion in the U.S.

Minnesota's leaders introduced legislation to expand broadband. Efforts include financial investment earmarked for infrastructure:

Senate File 2056 – referred to as the Border-to-Border Infrastructure Program – would take $100 million from the state's general fund to be applied to broadband projects. A companion bill in the House, HF 2615 was also introduced.

As we reported, there is bipartisan support for the bill in the House, but the Senate and Governor have not prioritized SF 2056.

New Hampshire's legislature wants to open up bonding authority for local communities that need help:

Legislation is making its way through the New Hampshire Legislature that would give local government expanded bonding authority for areas that have limited or no access to high-speed Internet connectivity. Sponsored by Rep. Charles Townsend, D-Canann, HB 286 passed the House earlier this year and is up for a hearing in the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee on April 23.

Heaton also reports on the Utah bill that targeted UTOPIA. The bill concerned potential private partners and appears defeated, but broadband advocates remain alert.

The agency [UTOPIA] has 11 member cities, but communities located outside the limits of member cities can pay to have the network built out to them.

HB 60 would prevent that from happening with specific language that targets only municipal fiber networks – potentially including a Google Fiber rollout in Provo, Utah. That means other forms of broadband such as DSL or cable would be exempt.

Tennessee is especially busy this session. Lawmakers introduced a collection of legislation aimed at enabling local communities to develop community networks. All appear stalled in committee or forgotten by leadership. Heaton spoke to Chris Mitchell about action in Tennessee:

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a national expert on community broadband, told Government Technology that he wasn’t surprised that the bills stalled. He explained that for years, broadband advocates have tried to remove some of the barriers to network expansion in the state, but to no avail.

“The ironic result is that the federal government may be subsidizing obsolete DSL because the state will not allow local governments to expand next-generation community fiber networks even when they are not subsidized in any way,” Mitchell said.

“Many of the elected officials still don't [have] enough pressure on them from constituents to stand up to AT&T and Comcast,” he added. “Those two firms have a lot of power in the [Tennessee] Legislature.”

Voters Approve Local Telecommunications Authority in Montrose, Colorado

By a 3,982 in favor and 1,397 opposed, the voters in Montrose decided on April 1st to take back local authority for telecommunications services. The state revoked the community's ability to establish a telecommunications utility in 2005. 

Jim Branscome covered the election results in the Daily Yonder. Branscome, a resident of Montrose, knows the local broadband situation:

Internet service here is currently a hodgepodge. Some of us depend on broadcast towers, some on DSL from CenturyLink and some on cable service from Charter. Service is generally at less than 10MB. It’s expensive, and customer service is erratic.

Community leaders state that they want to encourage fair competition and ensure every one has the opportunity to fast, reliable, affordable connectivity. 

In addition to ensuring that local businesses are in a position to compete with any large corporations that might attempt to establish a major share of the market, Turner said the city also wanted measures to enable lower income households to benefit from the advantages of gigabit speeds and capacity. “We don’t want to create two levels of society here, those who are connected and those who are not,” he said.

While Montrose is a long way from getting every person connected, the community is discussing the idea of financing a network with revenue bonds. 

This election result demonstrates Montrose's desire to be in control of their own connectivity. They understand the need to think of the future. From the Daily Yonder article:

It used to be that if a town wanted to prosper, it needed a river, then a railroad, then an Eisenhower Interstate highway, and then a cell phone tower. Today it needs to be a “gigabit city.”

Tennessee Legislature Considers Four Pro-Muni Bills

Even though there are several publicly owned networks in Tennessee, existing state statutes create barriers discouraging investment. This year, there is a movement at the state Capitol that may change the environment.

The Jolt Digest and CivSource recently reported that four bills aimed at expanding municipal networks in Tennessee have strong support in Nashville. These Tennessee bills are a refreshing change from bills that are pushed by the cable and telephone companies to limit investment in next-generation networks.

However, these bills are often killed quickly in committee or subcommittee due to the tremendous lobbying power of the big cable and telephone companies.

According to the Jolt Digest, two bills are location specific. From the article:

S.B. 2005 and H.B. 1974 would expand the municipal electric system’s provision of broadband service in Clarksville, Tennessee’s fifth largest city, while S.B. 2140 and H.B. 2242 would allow Trousdale County  to contract with a rural electric cooperative to provide broadband services.  

As the rules stands, municipal electric utilities that offer broadband cannot expand beyond their electric service territory. Clarksville would like to reach out further to offer services to schools, hospitals, and industrial parks. CDE Lightband now provides a gig product that community anchors need. According to Christy Batts at CDE Lightband, the network recently upgraded residential customers without raising rates. The lowest Internet access speed available to new customers is now 50 Mbps for $44.95 per month.

The Jolt Digest describes the remaining bills as intended to redefine the state's current definition of "telecommunications." The change would allow electric cooperatives to use their existing dark fiber to reach customers that are not served by rural telephone cooperatives. The goal is to encourage economic development, education and health care.

As we so often find, these bills have bipartisan support. Though Republicans at the state and federal level tend to support big cable and telephone company positions more often than Democrats, both Republicans and Democrats at the local level overwhelmingly support the decision being made at a local level rather than state or federal preemption.

PDFs of the full text of the bills are available online:

SB2005, HB1974 - Affecting Clarksville

SB1240, HB2242 - Affecting Trousdale County

SB2428, HB2364 - Addressing the definition of "telecommunications"

SB2562, HB2482 - Facilitates the expansion of municipal utilities’ broadband services for economic development, education, and health care.

Georgia and Idaho Communities Pass Resolutions in Support of Local Authority

Two more communities recently passed resolutions in support of local authority for broadband networks.

We have written about Ammon and its open access network in southeast Idaho. The municipal network connects anchor institutions and wireless towers in the community of approximately 14,000 people. Chris spoke with Bruce Patterson, Ammon's Technology Director, in Episode 86 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Their Resolution 2014-0005, signed by Mayor Dana Kirkham, reads:

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, water supply, public libraries, and other important services; and

WHEREAS, the City Council of the City of Ammon recognize that their economic health and survival depend on connecting the community, and they understand that it takes both private and public investment to achieve this goal; and

WHEREAS, state constitutions and state statutes exist that may limit or prohibit local government deployment of municipal Internet services, which has the potential of prohibiting or limiting 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 City of Ammon supports 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 Georgia, Mayor William M. McIntosh of Moultrie also signed a similar resolution on March 4th. Moultrie is part of the Community Network Services (CNS) region where member towns in Thomas County enjoy the benefits of a municipal network.

We spoke with Mike Scott, Moultrie City Manager, in episode 39 of the Broadband Bits podcast. Scott told us how local government, schools, and residents enjoy services the large corporate incumbents would not provide.

Nearby Thomasville was able to eliminate a city tax due in part to savings and revenue directly related to the network.

CNS Logo

Moutrie's Resolution R03-2014-02 language:

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 as a reasonable and competitive cost. This involvement has included electrification, water supply, public libraries, and other important services; and

WHEREAS, historically, 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 City of Moultrie supports 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.

As more communities pass resolutions, we will share their activities. If your community has officially stated that it supports the FCC in its efforts to restore local authority, let us know so we can spread the word.

Chris Mitchell Hosts March 18th Webinar: Tech in The City

On March 18th, our own Chris Mitchell will host a webinar that you don't want to miss. Tech In the City: A Conversation About Community Broadband Access will be an engaging discussion about municipal networks in light of the recent Verizon v. FCC decision. The court delved into the FCC's authority, clearing up ambiguities from past decisions.

The event, presented by the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net)'s Community Media Cohort begins at 11 a.m. Pacific / 2 p.m. Eastern. From the event announcement:

Earlier this year, a court order ruled against the Open Internet also known as network neutrality. However, this same order reaffirmed the FCC's role ensuring that communities and cities can create their own broadband infrastructures.

In the last decade hundreds of communities across the U.S have started their own community broadband networks via local governments, cooperatives, or other nonprofit arrangements. But cable and telephone companies, like Comcast and Verizon have a history of redlining in low-income, rural, historically marginalized communities. Led by cohort leader and community broadband expert, Chris Mitchell of Institute for Local Self Reliance, we will have a dialogue about what we can do to protect the future of community broadband networks.

RSVP for the event and spread the word!

On the Media Talks Cable Consolidation, Municipal Networks With Crawford and Baller

The possible merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable and the FCC's recent announcement to review state barriers have created a significant buzz in the world of telecommunications. Two recent NPR interviews with Susan Crawford and Jim Baller provide insight into how the merger may affect consumers and why a new light is shining on municipal networks.

Crawford spoke with Brooke Gladstone for a recent interview for On the Media. The two addressed some of the consequences of the potential merger. Crawford also discussed the option of municipal broadband investment is an alternative gaining traction. As our readers know, Crawford authored Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. Crawford joined us in a past episode of the Communiy Broadband Bits podcast.

Jim Baller, President of the Baller Herbst Law Group, also joined On the Media when he spoke with Bob Garfield. Baller and Garfield talked about the cable and telecom lobby's efforts to block municipal authority to build networks. Baller supplied a few of the many examples of successful communities that have blossomed as a result of their investment. We have interviewed Baller three times for our podcast.

 

Each interview is a little over six minutes.