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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.

New Hampshire's Bill Would Allow Munis to Bond for Open Access

A recent in-depth article from the Keene Sentinel updates us on the status of New Hampshire's HB 286, which would expand bonding authority for local governments. New Hampshire law currently restricts bonding authority for Internet infrastructure to towns with no access to the Internet, but nearly all communities have at least some slow broadband access in a few pockets of town.

We have been tracking this bill, most recently four months ago just before it overwhelmingly passed the house.

Unfortunately, the bill does not give many options to local governments. It settles to only allow bonding when the local government is not providing retail services, a business model that has only worked well when local governments have expanded very slowly. That said, New Hampshire already has a promising open access network called Fast Roads that would allow nearby towns to connect and access the four service providers already using it.

Connecting to an already-operating open access network is a much better prospect than having to start one from scratch, particularly in areas with low population density. Nonetheless, we continue to find it counter-productive for state legislatures to limit how local governments can invest in essential infrastructure. We know of no good policy reason for doing so - these limitations are a result of the lobbying power of a few cable and telephone companies that want to preserve scarcity to ensure high profit margins.

Kaitlin Mulhere's article, "Broadband access could be improved in NH through new bill," demonstrates the need for better networks in the granite state and notes that Fast Roads is starting to meet those needs in the areas it operates.

People often hear, for example, that 95 percent of the state has access to broadband, she said. But that’s only by including all New Hampshire Internet speeds, some of which fall below the speed considered fast enough to be broadband, which is 4 megabits per second (Mbps). Most of the state, more than half, doesn’t have access to speeds that meet the 4 Mbps threshold, she [Carole Monroe, Executive Director of Fast Roads] said.

...

So far, there are four providers on the network, which passes through 19 towns, including Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Keene, Marlow, Richmond, Rindge and Swanzey. Now that construction is complete, FastRoads is working to add more providers to the list, as well as looking for ways to expand its network to more residential areas.

FastRoads also included two areas of “last mile” construction, enabling 1,300 residents and businesses in specific areas of Rindge and Enfield to connect directly to the FastRoads fiber, though a service provider has to bring the connection from the cable box on the street into the home.
So far, about 180 residents or businesses are using the network, Monroe said.

For Rindge resident Tim Wessels, the FastRoads network has made a “world of difference.”
Before it, he paid $130 a month for a satellite and two DSL circuits. Combining all three, he had a download speed of just over 3 megabits per second.

Now, Wessels pays $70 to one Internet service provider for 20 Mbps of download and upload speed.

Fast Roads was assisted with an award from the federal broadband stimulus programs.

Utah Senate Bill Attacking UTOPIA on the Fast Track: SB190

UPDATE: According to Pete Ashdown, the amendment has been pulled. Stay vigilant, these things rarely just go away.

We reported earlier this month that UTOPIA was once again facing legislative attack at the state level in the form of HB60. While the House has focused on other issues, the Utah Senate is launching its own attack. SB190 has also put UTOPIA in the crosshairs and events are happening quickly. Time to contact your elected officials, Utah!

According to Jesse Harris at FreeUTOPIA.org, SB190 as originally crafted, could have curtailed a pending deal between UTOPIA and Australian firm Macquierie. From Harris' February 19 story on the bill:

It appears the legislature is determined to chase off a $300M investment in our state’s broadband infrastructure to appease CenturyLink. Sen. John Valentine is running SB190 which has been very specifically crafted to prevent any UTOPIA city from using the same utility fee that Provo has to pay down the bonds. Moving to a utility fee to provide transparency on the cost of the UTOPIA bonds has been a key part of the Macquarie discussions so far, so it could very well put the deal in jeopardy.

Since its introduction, the bill was heard in the Senate Business and Labor committee. There was broad and fierce opposition and Sen. John Valentine, the sponsor of the bill, amended it. The changes made the bill palatable to Macquarie and it passed through committee to the Senate Floor on Feb. 24.

After the bill passed through the committee, Valentine introduced a floor amendment that will prevent new cities from joining the network. Harris now reports:

His floor amendment to SB190 makes it so that only current UTOPIA cities can use a utility fee to finance construction of the network. Any new cities that join would be unable to do so at all.

Why does this matter? Because Macquarie has structured the entire deal around it. If future cities can’t do it, they can’t get the same terms that Macquarie is offering UTOPIA. This could derail their rumored plans to cover the entire state in gigabit fiber with over a dozen competing providers.

The bill is now awaiting a vote on in the Senate. It is imperative that you contact the Senate, especially your own elected offical, to voice your opposition to the bill in its current form.

These types of end runs around legislative procedure are common place. In my own limited experience working at the state legislature, I have seen contentious sections of proposed bills added or removed to make a deal, only to be added or removed later on the floor and during conference commitee. In places that do not have a full time legislature, changing proposed legislation on top of a deadline is an effective way to take advantage of the clock to achieve an unpopular goal. It is important to remember that legislation is fluid until the gavel comes down sine die.

KKFI in Kansas City Interview Mitchell and Todd O'Boyle on Kansas Legislation

On February 13, KKFI Community Radio from Kansas City, Missouri, interviewed ILSR's Chris Mitchell and Todd O'Boyle from Common Cause. Tom Klammer, host of the "Tell Somebody" show covered Kansas legislation SB 304 aimed at preventing municipalities from investing in their own broadband networks.

Chris and Todd co-authored our 2013 case study, The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina. They reviewed the events in Wilson, North Carolina, home of municipal network Greenlight. As in Kansas, powerful cable company lobbyists attacked municipal networks in North Carolina through the state legislature.

Klammer writes on the program website:

Recently Todd O’Boyle of Common Cause brought my attention to a Kansas Senate bill, authored by a cable industry lobbyist, which would outlaw community broadband in Kansas.  Subsequently I came across an article online written by O’Boyle’s colleague Christopher Mitchell who wrote that the bill in question, if passed, would create some of the most draconian limits on building networks that we have seen in any state.

You can listen to the interview from the program website. The interview is a little under one hour.

Big Incumbents At It Again In Kentucky; Mimi Pickering in the Richmond Register

Yet again, lobbyists from AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell are lobbying state elected officials under the false guise of improving communications in Kentucky. In a Richmond Register opinion piece, Mimi Pickering from the Rural Broadband Policy Group revealed the practical consequences of Senate Bill 99.

Republican Senator Paul Hornback is once again the lead sponsor on the bill. As usual, backers contend the legislation moves Kentucky communications forward. Last year, Pickering and her coalition worked to educate Kentuckians on SB 88, that would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement. We spoke with Pickering about the bill in Episode #44 of the Broadband Bits podcast. They had a similar fight in 2012.

In her opinon piece, Pickering describes the practical effect of this policy change:

It would allow them to abandon their least profitable customers and service areas as well as public protection obligations. But it is a risky and potentially dangerous bet for Kentuckians. Kentucky House members should turn it down.

Everyone agrees that access to affordable high-speed Internet is a good thing for Kentucky. However, despite what AT&T officials and their numerous lobbyists say, SB 99 does nothing to require or guarantee increased broadband investment, especially in areas of most need.

AT&T Kentucky President Hood Harris claims that current Kentucky law prevents the company from investing in new technology. As Pickering points out, AT&T refused to build in unserved areas when offered federal funds. Those funds came with minimum obligations; AT&T was not interested.

The bill appeared to be on the fast track to passage, breezing through the Senate Economic Development, Labor, and Tourism Committee only ten days after being introduced. According to the Kentucky Herald-Leader, AARP, the Kentucky Resources Council, and several smaller cable and Internet service providers expressed opposition to the bill:

"We are not giving up our land lines. We want to hang onto them even as we get our cellphones because we think the land lines are more dependable," said Jim Kimbrough, president of AARP Kentucky.

...

Smaller cable companies and Internet providers told senators they worry the bill lacks language to protect them from unfair competitive tactics by AT&T once it's freed of even more PSC regulation, following earlier phone deregulation measures that passed in 2004 and 2006.

Pickering knows quick passage is dangerous. From her opinion piece:

How is this good for Kentucky? There is no good reason for the General Assembly to rush thorough the AT&T-backed legislation and surrender the rights and protections guaranteed to us under our long-standing communications laws.

SB 99 is bad news and big trouble for all of us, unless of course you are one of these telecommunication giants.

FCC to Investigate Barriers to Community Networks

We are supportive of the announcement today from the Federal Communications Commission. We salute the FCC for beginning to examine how state level barriers against municipal networks deter investment in the networks both communities and the nation desperately need.

From the statement:

The Commission will look for opportunities to enhance Internet access competition. One obvious candidate for close examination was raised in Judge Silberman’s separate opinion, namely legal restrictions on the ability of cities and towns to offer broadband services to consumers in their communities.

The FCC has a history of encouraging states not to pass such laws (Commissioner Clyburn, previous FCC Chair, former Commissioner Copps) and the National Broadband Plan made recommendation 8.19: "Congress should make clear that Tribal, state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks."

Even if communities choose not to build their own networks, having that capacity changes the dynamic of the big cable and telephone companies - something Franklin D. Roosevelt described as the "birch rod" in the cupboard (regarding municipal electricity):

But on the other hand the very fact that a community can, by vote of the electorate, create a yardstick of its own, will, in most cases, guarantee good service and low rates to its population. I might call the right of the people to own and operate their own utility something like this: a "birch rod" in the cupboard to be taken out and used only when the "child" gets beyond the point where a mere scolding does no good.

With the recent network neutrality decision from the Circuit Court, the FCC has a very clear path to ensure all local governments can decide locally whether such an investment is wise, rather than being preempted by a state legislature that may have been misled by powerful lobbyists.

We are calling on our readers, local governments, and all concerned citizens to applaud the FCC decision to examine these barriers. One thing you can do to help is to reach out to Senators and your representatives in DC. Make sure they know you support a local decision-making process rather than one-size-fits-all rules dictated by those in the capital.

If you want more background on Section 706 and municipal networks, listen to our recent podcast interview with Harold Feld.

We are also cheered by the continued stated committment of the FCC to preserving the open Internet and hope this process will achieve that end. We continue to believe that properly classifying Internet access as a telecommunications service and appropriate forbearance for unnecessary regulations is the best approach for safeguarding the Internet. However, we recognize the intense pressure by some of the most powerful corporations in DC not to take that route. Our work is cut out to ensure there are no loopholes that would damage the Internet.