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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."

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.

City of Urbana Passes Resolution Supporting FCC Section 706 Authority

The Illinois community of Urbana, home of UC2B, recently passed a resolution in favor of FCC's section 706 authority. The community's fiber project is bridging the digital divide in this community of 41,000.

On March 17, the City Council voted unanimously to support the FCC as it considers action to discourage, prevent, and remove state legislative barriers that block municipal networks. 

The language is similar to resolutions from communities such as Sebewaing, VidaliaAmmon, and Moultrie. Urbana noted in its resolution that it has made substantial efforts to bring access to more people in the community.  We interviewed Carol Ammons from the U-C Independent Media Center and Brandon Bowersox-Johnson from UC2B in episode 42 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Chris, Carol, and Brandon discussed the way the community is capitalizing on the rare urban FTTH network.

RESOLUTION NO. 2014-03-017R

A RESOLUTION TO SUPPORT FCC EFFORTS IN PROTECTING LOCAL AUTHORITY

TO BUILD BROADBAND INFRASTRUCTURE

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, residents of Urbana have a history of advocacy for expansion of Internet access worldwide and the City has invested in local projects to achieve broader access that would not have been realized using private investment alone; and

WHEREAS, local government leaders recognize that the ability to thrive economically and to improve quality of life depends 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 in other states 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, 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 COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF URBANA, ILLINOIS, 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.

Louisiana and Michigan Towns Pass Resolutions to Support Municipal Network Authority

Two more communities have gone on the record as supporting local authority for telecommunications infrastructure investment. Communities in Vidalia and Sebewaing passed resolutions supporting the FCC's efforts to use its authority to discourage, prevent, and remove state barriers.

Vidalia, on the west side of the Mississippi in Louisiana, recently began offering free Wi-Fi in its new sports complex and along its riverfront. According to Mayor Hyram Copeland, the lack of free public access left local leaders feeling behind the times. From a Natchez Democrat article in February:

“I was embarrassed to say, ‘No,’ but now I can say we do,” Copeland said. “But the end result of all this is that we will have moved this community forward.”

Vidalia seeks funding for a fiber network. Apparently, they are ready with a design and have the technical expertise in-house, but lack of funds have held up the project.

Vidalia's Resolution is almost identical to those in Ammon, Moultrie, Westminster, and Chanute.

Vidalia Seal

We reported on Sebewaing, located in Michigan's "thumb," last summer. The community runs its own electric utility and, due to lack of interest from incumbents, decided a FTTH network was a project they needed to pursue. According Melanie McCoy, from Sebewaing Light and Water, the project is proceeding as planned.

Sebewaing's Resolution uses the same language to address the points we see in Resolutions from the other communities: the need for better access, the importance of broadband infrastructure to local economies, and the important role of local government in the decision making process. Each community has expressed its support of the FCC's decision to exercise its authority under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Home Security Firm ADT Opposes Kentucky Bill to Eliminate Landlines

In February, we reported on another attempt by AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell, to eliminate plain old telephone service (POTS) in Kentucky. According to Mimi Pickering from the Rural Broadband Policy Group, AT&T's SB 99 is quickly moving ahead and may even be up for a full House vote at any time.

Kentucky has fought to save its landlines for three years in a row. Many of us only think of landlines as a way to speak with loved ones, but for the isolated, elderly, and those that face daily health hazards, a landline is also a lifeline.

We recently learned that home security firm ADT submitted a letter opposing the passage of SB 99 because many business and residential customers rely ADT's technology designed for traditional landlines. Even thought the letter is dated March 4th, it only recently came to light. The letter states:

Many of our customers, like the one who alerted ADT to this bill, rely on POTS to carry alarm signals to and from monitoring companies like ADT.  Some also use POTS for their Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS) and medical alert services.  ADT accepts that the transition from POTS is a natural progression towards new technology, and is actively working to develop best processes and an acceptable timeline where POTS is discontinued; however, the safety of everyday Kentuckians could be jeopardized if this is not done in a pragmatic, thoughtful way.

Kentuckians can weigh in on this bill by calling the toll free message line at 800-372-7181 and tell House leadership and their legislator to oppose SB 99.

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 Moutrie 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.

Minnesota Local Governments Advance Super Fast Internet Networks

Publication Date: 
March 19, 2014
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell
Author(s): 
Lisa Gonzalez

Local governments in Minnesota have been at the forefront of expanding fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access - often in some of the most challenging areas of the state. ILSR has just released a policy brief to explore some of these approaches: Minnesota Local Governments Advance Super Fast Internet Networks.

The full report is available here.

The brief examines five communities that have taken different approaches to expanding access, from working with a trusted local partner to creating a new cooperative to building community-wide FTTH networks.

Lac qui Parle County has worked with Farmers Mutual Telephone cooperative to bring fiber networks to those who had been stuck on dial-up. Finding itself in a similar situation with no reliable partner, Sibley County is creating a new coop to work with.

Scott County built a fiber ring to connect community anchor institutsion to dramatically expand access to high capacity networks and lower telecommunications budgets. That network has helped to lure several major employers to the area by leasing fiber to them.

Windom and Monticello have built FTTH networks in extremely challenging conditions. Though Windom is far smaller than most have believed is feasible to build such a network, it has thrived and is now connecting many of the small towns surrounding it. It was essential in retaining jobs in the community that would have been lost without it and has attracted new jobs to the region. Monticello is a younger network and has remarkably benefited the community even as it has struggled financially due to dirty tricks from the telephone and cable companies.

The policy brief makes some policy recommendations while focusing on some local solutions to difficult problems in ensuring all Minnesotans have fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access.

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!

Westminster and Chanute Pass Resolutions Supporting FCC's Authority to Remove State Barriers

In light of the recent announcement, community leaders in Maryland and Kansas are rallying behind the FCC as it considers its authority under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In a show of support, the Westminster Mayor and Common Council passed Resolution 14-01, a statement in support of restoring and preserving local authority to build networks. Twelve hundred miles away in Chanute, the City Commission took the same action with Resolution 2014-17.

Readers will remember Westminster as the central Maryland town that has carefully progressed forward in realizing better connectivity. The community recently approved a fiber pilot project as a way to test the water. Our contact in Westminster, Dr. Robert Wack, reported that interest in the network has blossomed even before the start of construction. The network has already attracted one new employer from New York.

Our 2012 case study, Chanute’s Gig: One Rural Kansas Community’s Tradition of Innovation Led to a Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage, tells the story of how the community incrementally built a world-class network. Without borrowing or bonding, Chanute's next-generation fiber network has enhanced education, economic development, and saved millions of taxpayer dollars.

This legislative session, Chanute has contended with threatening state legislation that could derail their expansion plans. The community is very close to a project that would offer fiber services to every premise in town.

Westminster Seal

Westminster's resolution, passed unanimously on February 24, reads:

RESOLUTION NO. 14-01 RESOLUTION of The Mayor and Common Council of Westminster

SUBJECT: STATEMENT IN SUPPORT OF THE FCC RESTORING AND PRESERVING LOCAL AUTHORITY TO BUILD NETWORKS

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 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 availability 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 Westminster 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.

Local Authority

Chanute's resolution was very similar with special attention focused on local authority:

Preserving Local Control and Restoring Community Determination for Broadband Deployment

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, community/municipal broadband networks provide opportunities to improve and encourage innovation, education, health care, economic development, and affordable Internet access; and

WHEREAS, historically, the City of Chanute, has ensured access to essential services by providing those services that were not offered by the private sector at a reasonable and competitive cost. Chanute’s infrastructure investments have included electricity production and distribution, gas distribution, water treatment and distribution, wastewater collection and treatment, sanitation and landfill, streets, parks, and other vital community 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, the universal availability of affordable, high speed internet access for all citizens has been identified as a national priority; 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 services to their citizens in a timely, efficient, and cost effective manner; 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 Commission of the City of Chanute, Kansas, supports FCC efforts to ensure local governments are able to invest in essential telecommunications infrastructure, if they so choose, without state-imposed barriers to discourage such an approach.

ADOPTED by the Governing Body on February 24, 2014.

Communities know their futures depend on the ability to bring fast, affordable, reliable access into their community. Because local leaders recognize that large corporate providers seldom build past low hanging fruit, a growing number now invest in their own infrastructure.